Few people would confuse Declan Burke’s writing with Scott Phillips’s, though they have one critical element in common: no matter how many of their books you’ve read in the past, you’re never quite sure what this one’s going to be like.
So it is with Burke’s The Lost and the Blind. A German U-boat surfaces near a small island in neutral Ireland during World War II, in search of an English spy. Before the night is over a church full of children will be burned to the ground. The submarine might have been be sunk, its cargo of gold intended for the IRA at the bottom of the lough. Seventy years later, a rich Irish expatriate returns to purge the guilt he feels in the matter through philanthropy. Less sure is whether he should feel guilty at all. Through it all runs a thread of uncertainty: how much of this really happened?
Burke has written a tribute to Raymond Chandler and pulp-era private eyes (Eightball Boogie), and a sequel darker than anything Chandler dreamed of (Slaughter’s Hound); an Elmore Leonard-esque “screwball noir” (The Big O) and its sequel, an even screwier road trip (Crime Always Pays); and a darkly funny and disturbing bit of metafiction where a discarded character comes back to haunt the author (Absolute Zero Cool). In The Lost and the Blind, he uses his considerable talents to channel Alistair MacLean, weaving plot twists over plot twists until you’re not necessarily sure who the characters are, and don’t know how much one in particular should be trusted, even at the denouement.
All the things Burke’s previous readers have come to know are there. He’s as deft with his dialog and use of language as ever. The humor is, as always, well placed and well done, though this is not by any means a funny book in the way The Big O and Crime Always Pays are. The interplay between the characters rings true, which serves to make the plot twists both surprising when they happen and reasonable when you think about them. No mean feat, that.
The Lost and the Blind is a bit of a departure for Burke, with its historical elements and labyrinthine plotting. That he pulls it off at all speaks highly of his talent and diversity. That he pulls it off so well leads one to hope he’ll mine this vein again. But, remember, he’s Declan Burke. He may write a sequel along those lines—he’s done that with Crime Always Pays—or write a sequel with a different tone—as he did in Slaughter’s Hound—or, being Burke, he may do something completely different. There’s only one prediction that can be made about Burke’s next book: it will keep you up late, and you’ll be happy it did.
(The Lost and the Blind is available now in Ireland and the UK. Here in the colonies—where fine literature always seems to come late to the party—it releases in April, and can be pre-ordered via Amazon.)