A Chaster On The Rocks, by Simon Maltman
[Note: This book was given free of charge by the writer. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
If you are familiar with the author’s other work , there is a lot that will strike you as familiar. The hero of this story is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking private investigator and writer with a fragile grip on reality who serves as a slightly unreliable narrator. Where this book excels is in its characters and its sense of place, mostly Belfast but also some surrounding areas and even Dublin as well as the protagonist does some research for his WWII-era novel. There is something meta about this novel, as the author gets to show off how a writer learns his trade with the protagonist taking writing classes as a way of coping with his mental illness, struggling with whether to take his meds or not, dealing with absence seizures, which are no picnic to deal with, and also writing in the novel within a novel a detective with a bad case of PTSD. As that is something which I am unfortunately afflicted with as well, let me affirm to you that it is no picnic either. Both of the plots work exceedingly well together and the author has constructed another story that shows the reader his virtuosity and his skill in managing character and plot as well as genre.
The story itself is suitably complicated given the way that chapters alternate between the novel and the novel within the novel. In the past, a Belfast detective solves a couple of crimes involving the death of an idealistic young woman who stumbles across some Nazi spies as well as a blackmail case gong wrong involving a lovely woman involved with her second cousin who the detective finds himself deeply attracted to. This is handled with a nice touch, showing off some excellent historical research about the blitz in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The contemporary storyline is a bit slower paced. This story is not one that starts with a lot of drama, but rather it is a story that starts a bit slow and sneaks up on you, setting the stage with a lot of context and showing some funny scenes. My favorite scene, although it doesn’t figure much in the plot, is the argument that the protagonist has with a woman who thinks he is some sort of creeper for going to the park without kids and the reply is blistering and on point. By the end of the story, though, the reader definitely gets an appreciation for Belfast and some deeply interesting characters.
This novel, as might be expected, shows the deft touch of someone who knows genres and who also slips in some humorous references that prove to be a bit of foreshadowing. For example, one of the scenes where the protagonist is taking a writing class shows him to be immensely fond of Chandler’s writings, and at one point it is remarked that Chandler’s The Big Sleep succeeds even though the novelist doesn’t reveal the entire mystery of the plot. A clever and observant reader will notice that is the case here, as the novel is satisfying enough that even though there are some loose ends, the reader will be pleased because the tone and characters are so excellently handled. This book is definitely an example of an author knowing their craft and giving more than just a wink and a nod to the great novels of the past. One can see this particular series going on for quite some time, as the protagonist is compelling with his struggle to stay sane with financial troubles, mysteries to investigate, and novels to write as he tries to stay out of the mental hospital, and as Belfast is a place with enough stories to fill a lifetime.
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