I’d heard good things about Colin Bateman, and decided to start with his first, a 1998 thriller set during the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Bateman’s wit carries this: as thrillers go, Divorcing Jack is laugh-out-loud funny – in a dark and violent way. The main protagonist, Dan Starkey, is a decidedly beta male (or maybe even omega of there is such a thing). He’s not strong, brave, fair, loyal, tough, or honest. He betrays his wife with little remorse. He spends a fair bit of the story far too drunk (which increasingly appeals very little to me as a reader: drunks tend to be out-of-control bores in fiction as well as real life). He has some moral core – he can’t kill a gangster in cold blood when given the chance – but it’s wafer thin. And he is moderately clever. But basically his main redeeming feature is that he’s funny. Otherwise, he’s not very likeable – and for a reader, that’s a major flaw. I wasn’t that bothered by the outcome, so far as he was concerned. There were other characters I would far rather have survived.
For me, Bateman immediately invites comparisons with Adrian McKinty, another Irish novelist setting his stories during the troubles, and the Bateman does not hold up well. McKinty also has a mineshaft seam of black humour, and his character Sean Duffy drinks more than seems humanly possible at times, but the Duffy novels have greater depth and reality. The setting and background are explored with real understanding; you feel that you know what it was like to have lived in Ulster at that time, that you have got inside a very bad place in history, and under its skin. The Bateman is more plot-driven and yet at the same time the plot is more predictable. Which I hate that word, when there are basically only so many plots out there – but the handling of the blackmail elements just doesn’t feel fresh. I think Sean Duffy’s first involved a homosexual element in the IRA, and a rent boy: now that was unexpected – and the characters felt more complex, and real. As a Catholic cop in the RUC, Duffy’s character is constantly ambivalent, conflicted, pulled all ways and mistrusted on all sides. He has a strong moral core, but is frequently faced with impossible choices, and the insanity of it all is sometimes too much to bear. But, Duffy is tough: he stands up when it matters. The women all falling over themselves for this wee shite Starkey seems rather wishful thinking.
Which line of reasoning, by the way, raises the question: does a novel have to have an underlying morality, or truth to it? Or can it just be entertainment? Arguably the answer to the latter is yes, but such a novel is maybe a less satisfying read. Ultimately, according to Christopher Booker of Booker Prize fame, we read stories to believe wrongs can be righted and that there is some purpose and justice in the world. On that count, Divorcing Jack isn’t entirely lacking, but it feels shallow.
That being said and done, this was a first novel, and it was more than good enough. I would hope that with time, the author has achieved more depth and complexity. Even if he hasn’t – it’s still very very funny.