Talty’s first foray into crime fiction, a memorable story of betrayal and vengeance, centers on a working-class Irish enclave in contemporary Buffalo, N.Y. The macabre killing of gas-meter reader Jimmy Ryan brings Det. Absalom “Abbie” Kearney to South Buffalo (aka “the County,” as in the 27th county of Ireland), where “ancestry was everything.” As the adopted daughter of legendary cop John Kearney, Abbie is both an insider and an outsider. More gruesome, carefully staged deaths occur, pointing to members of the secretive, powerful Clan na Gael as targets. Hampered by community distrust, Abbie must dig deeply into long-buried secrets that could endanger her father’s life and reputation as well as her own life. Talty (Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day) does a fine job portraying the cohesiveness of the Irish, their loyalty to one another, and their obsession with their history. Agent: Scott Waxman, Waxman Leavell Literary. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“Abbie Kearney is one of the most intriguing new suspense protagonists in memory, and Black Irish marks the captivating start of a brilliant thriller series.”—Tess Gerritsen
“Luxuriantly cinematic . . . a compulsively readable crime thriller . . . Move over V. I. Warshawski; Buffalo gets its own crime novel heroine.”—The Buffalo News
“A suspenseful debut novel with a circuitous plot . . . Black Irish is simply a riveting read.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Talty shows his chops when recounting [Buffalo’s] Irish roots.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Talty does a fine job portraying the cohesiveness of the Irish, their loyalty to one another, and their obsession with their history. . . . A memorable story of betrayal and vengeance.”—Publishers Weekly
Best-selling nonfiction author Talty (Empire of Blue Water) sets his debut thriller, a grisly and complex tale, in his hometown of South Buffalo, NY, a working-class Irish American community. Harvard-educated homicide detective Absalom “Abbie” Kearney returns home to care for her ex-cop father and begins investigating an ongoing series of brutal murders with a puzzling signature and some kind of connection to her family. But her probe is stymied by her colleagues, leading her to uncover a secret Gaelic organization.
Verdict To say this book is an utterly compelling read would be an understatement, although the necessary background information on the Irish Republican Army and Gaelic groups is a bit dense for readers unfamiliar with the subject. However, some terrific surprises, which are more than welcome in a genre that can often be predictable, make up for the difficult history lesson. Buffalonians will love all the references to their city (e.g., Tim Hortons, the Skyway, and the perennially losing Buffalo Sabres hockey team), and homesick ex-pats will crave a Super Mighty from Mighty Taco. Fans of exciting and unpredictable thrillers will add this one to their must-read list. [See Prepub Alert, 8/3/12; library marketing.]—Samantha Gust, Niagara Univ. Lib., NY
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Talty harnesses his nonfiction skills to craft a novel that's centered on a feisty female cop in a history-rich Irish enclave in upstate New York. Absalom Kearney, adopted daughter of legendary Buffalo police detective John Kearney, has returned home to care for her rapidly declining father. Abbie, as she's known, worked as a police officer in Miami. She's been back for a year and has already established herself as the best homicide investigator in the BPD. When Abbie and her partner, "Z," catch a missing persons' case that turns out to be the tip of a serial killers' iceberg, she gets a chance to prove how good she is. The victim, Jimmy Ryan, a perpetual nonachiever who was tortured and left dead in an abandoned church, was discovered with a toy plastic monkey near his body. When someone tries to enter the home Abbie shares with her dad and leaves a similar toy on the doorknob, the female cop realizes that she's up against more than simply a clever killer. She tracks members of a secret Irish organization while chasing the murderer across her county and into neighboring Niagara Falls, all the time putting herself in harm's way. Talty shows his chops when recounting the area's Irish roots, but the first half of the story is sluggish. The relentless grimness of the setting, hopelessness of the local economy and general ineptness of other police officers combine to create a lackluster atmosphere populated by characters that lack both depth and vitality. That in itself could be forgiven if Talty's plot revealed brilliant detective work, but it doesn't. Instead, Abbie comes across as unreasonable, dismissive of her co-workers, and abusive to both other cops and suspects alike. Readers can be forgiven if they find Talty's story stretches credulity a bit, especially in the bloody second half. This Buffalo-based novel turns out to be more notable for its area history, moody setting and occasional smart turn of phrase than for the thuggish heroine.
Read an Excerpt
Detective Absalom Kearney took the exit for the Skyway and the Ford nosed upward, climbing with the gray asphalt. Lake Erie was frozen over far below and to her right; to her left, Buffalo’s industrial waterfront slept as quiet and still as an oil painting. The factory smokestacks rode past, even with her windshield, but not a smudge of smoke drifted up from them. The waterfront was dead, slumbering for the past three decades. When Absalom used to ride along this part of the highway with her father twenty years before, she’d sometimes hear the smokestacks keen as the storm winds hit them.
She rolled down the window. The smokestacks were silent. The squall hadn’t peaked yet.
The crest of the road was ahead, only slate-colored sky beyond. Three stories up, the Skyway was a ribbon of concrete spilled across the clouds. The wind shook the car with a guttering rattle. Abbie gripped the wheel harder.
She felt the fear grow inside her again, blooming like a growing rose in a sped-up film. She took the Skyway every time she had to go to South Buffalo instead of driving down the 90, where the highway hugged the earth all the way to the exit at Seneca Street, by the junkyard that seemed to hold the same hundred wrecked cars she’d seen there as a child. Abbie told herself she took the road above the lake because she wanted to face the thing that terrified her. Which was what, exactly?
White tendrils of snow skimmed ahead of her Ford Crown Vic, pushed by the wind. The front edge of the storm was blowing in, spinning a spiderweb of frozen lace on the asphalt. Her eyes followed them as the road rose. Endlessly intricate patterns, hypnotic to watch them form and break, form and break.
There were no cars up ahead, not a single red brake light in the tall, rippling curtains of snow. The empty highway made her think that if she moved the wheel just two inches to the right she would put the car into the railing. A lull, the bang of ice, and then water. Lake Erie in January was a freezing tomb. Death in fifteen minutes. She’d looked it up, whether to calm herself or scare herself she had no idea.
She could almost hear the snow crystals scour the asphalt. They made a rough, hissing sound that grated on your eardrums. It was like the shushing of a dogsled heading into blankness, disappearing into the advancing storm . . .
Abbie leaned and turned up the radio, which the last detective had tuned to a country station and which she hadn’t bothered to change. She found the University of Buffalo station playing some obscure eighties synth music.
When she told her partner Z about how odd she felt driving Buffalo highways, he’d asked her why. She’d brushed it off then, but now she knew. It’s the emptiness. The enormous emptiness. Or the loneliness, that was it, the feeling of being alone in a place that should be filled with other people, cars full of families headed to the supermarket, to the restaurant on the lake, to the hockey game. Buffalo had built miles of highways during the boom years, enough for a million people. The people that were going to come but didn’t. Why not? Where’d they disappear to? What happened to them?
Now the gray roads splayed across the city, empty half the time. The local joke was the only way Buffalo would get a rush hour was if Toronto got hit by a nuclear bomb and panicked Canadians came pouring south. You could drive for twenty minutes at a time at three on a weekday afternoon and not see another car pass you. The highway system was a network of veins laid across a dead heart.
But she couldn’t talk about those things, because eyes were already on her. She’d only been in Buffalo PD for a year. At thirty-one, she was already on her second police job. If she messed this up like she did Miami . . .
The radio crackled. “Detective Kearney, this is Dispatch. McDonough wants to know your ETA.”
A missing persons case in the County. Must be a family with some connection to the Department, because the missing guy had only been gone since Monday. Just two days. And the officer on scene had called in to check on Abbie’s progress, making the family think their missing son or daughter was a priority. Usually, they would just ask the family if Danny or Maura preferred crystal meth or alcohol.
She kept her eyes on the yellow line as she reached to pick up the handset. The radio was mounted far enough away to give legroom for a bigger person—that is, one of the sprawling six-foot men that the Department seemed to breed, not the average-sized Abbie. Finally, she hooked the cord with a French-polished fingernail and brought the handset up.
“Kearney to Dispatch,” she said in a husky voice. “Twenty minutes.”
She descended down the back slope of the Skyway, the lake coming up on her right and then the raggedy little marina where her father had liked to fish in the spring. Next to it were the hulking grain elevators, massive concrete silos that, like all the old mills down along the waterfront, had been empty for decades. It used to be that ships filled with golden wheat from the West would come steaming into the harbor and unload their haul. The West grew it, and Buffalo milled it. Now the companies were bankrupt and kids with Irish pug noses and no concept of mortality fell to their deaths after breaking the silo locks and climbing up the inside on the rusty maintenance ladders. There wasn’t that much else to do in the County on a Saturday night.
There’d been one just last week, a seventeen-year-old boy named Fenore who’d wanted to impress his porky girlfriend, who they found crying hysterically at the foot of the silo. Abbie had done one recovery and that was enough. The insides of the things smelled like rancid beer, and at the bottom, always the broken bodies.
Abbie had begun to think of them as sarcophagi, twenty-story vertical tombs facing out to the lake like some kind of postindustrial pyramids, the bones of the young inside. The whole city was entombed by the artifacts of its glory days.
She jumped off at Tifft Street, grinding the front wheels into a left turn, and shot off through the nature preserve.
Coming to South Buffalo was coming home, she guessed. But a little half-Irish girl from outside the neighborhood could never have been at home here, even if she’d been adopted and raised by a legendary Irish cop, the great and terrible John Kearney. Certainly not a girl with an unknown father, who’d given her a shock of midnight-black hair, what they called Black Irish in the County. And if that wasn’t enough, Harvard grads like Abbie were regarded as nothing less than two-headed aliens.
They called South Buffalo the Twenty-Seventh County, or the County for short, a patch of Ireland in the wilds of America. Blacks need not apply; strangers, be on your way; and faggot, can you outrun a bullet? Back in high school, her neighbors the Sheehans hadn’t even let that poor redheaded kid John Connell come on their porch to pick up their daughter Moira for the freshman dance. Not because he was Italian or German or, God forbid, Puerto Rican, not because he was too poor or addicted to alcohol or sexually suspect or pockmarked by acne. No. It turned out his family was from the wrong part of Ireland, Abbie’s friends patiently explained to her afterward. The Connells were from Mayo and the Sheehans were pure Kilkenny. “D’ya get it now? He’s the wrong county; the Sheehans won’t have a Mayo boy on their doorstep.” Their faces shiny with concern, emphatic that she should understand the intricacies of Irish-American dating.
“Yep,” she’d told them. “I get it now.”
Inside, she’d thought, Looks like I can forget about getting a date in high school. And she’d been right. Her raven-black hair, which was only accentuated by her pale skin and sky-blue eyes, her long-dead drug-addicted mother, and her unknown father had doomed her to a life as an outsider in the County, where ancestry was everything. She remembered the moment as the beginning of her disastrous romantic history, and probably her sharp tongue, too.
That had been in the nineties. Things were different now, people said. There were even a few blacks and Latinos sprinkled among the County’s population, though you never seemed to see them walking the streets. Maybe they carpooled for safety and conversation.
But some parts of the neighborhood never changed. The clannish logic. The hostility to outsiders. The secret, ancient warmth. The alcoholism.
As her partner, Z, said whenever someone from this part of the city did something completely inexplicable or self-destructive: “WATC.”
“We are the County.”
No other explanation necessary. Or possible.