A Marlowe from Mayo
The Branchman, by Nessa O’Mahony, Arlen House, 362 pp, £26.95, ISBN: 978-1851321896
In her new novel, The Branchman, Nessa O’Mahony turns to recent Irish history with a fast- moving yarn set in the jittery period shortly after the Civil War. It is an inventive touch to focus on the Civic Guards, whose title echoes the recent troubles. In the town of Ballinasloe, as throughout Ireland, the Garda Síochána are an important group. They stand in many ways at the forefront of efforts to calm and normalise life for a society still traumatised. Yet they too ‑ as individuals and as a force – are divided and damaged. As Superintendent Hennessy, an old RIC man, says: “It’s hard to convince the GAA that we’re not still the bloody peelers.” And “we try not to stir up too much recent history”. Like most books set in the past, The Branchmanhas resonance with the present moment.
The originality of this novel lies in O’Mahony’s treating of dirty work in Co Galway in 1925 within many of the conventions of American private eye fiction. I suspect that Nessa is, like myself, a fan of the peerless Raymond Chandler. Her hero, Michael Mackey – the Branchman – has to go down mean streets, without being mean himself. Like Philip Marlowe, he can exchange blows and shots when required, but he resembles Marlowe also in his stubborn principles and his romantic attachment to a tough broad.
The device allows O’Mahony to enliven the dialogue with wisecracks, especially from Sergeant Joe Costello, a fan of American pulp novels. Costello remarks of the station files, “I do like a bit of fiction now and then,” and, as the body count rises, “there are only so many suspects to go around”. In his role as desk sergeant, Costello epitomises a self-serving institutionalised policeman who could easily belong to Chandler’s Bay City police district. We see him as preoccupied with his tea and sandwiches, controlling communications inside and outside the barracks. Many scenes end with him “lifting the phone”. Or “replacing the receiver”. Her use of tough banter is a clever vehicle for O’Mahony’s major theme: how cynicism has supplanted idealism among the servants of the newly established Free State.
One classic fiction plot is built on the arrival of a newcomer into a tight-knit society, whereby long-dormant quarrels revive. Here Mackey is an unknown quantity, inevitably mistrusted by all the local gardaí as the guy from headquarters with fancy ideas. “Nobody told anything straight, it seemed.” Like Marlowe, an outsider but sufficiently in the know to upend a society where everyone has something to hide, everyone is tainted by a time of violence and treachery which, as Mackey discovers, has not ended. His quest is, overtly, to uncover an informer within the guards, but also to come to terms with his own burden of memory and guilt. He is a wounded and imperfect hero, with a leg injury from his service in the First World War, service of which he – in common with many other Mayo men and indeed Irish men – dare not speak. He is troubled also by memories of, and unfinished business from, dark deeds done during the War of Independence and the Civil War. Nor is his concealment of his service on the Western Front the only amnesia: many episodes from past struggles hover on the margins of conversation, as characters rationalise the choices they made and endure the consequences.
In his reflective self-awareness, Mackey contrasts with his opposite number, who has also just returned to the scene of many killings. He is a kind of shadow to Mackey – the guy who got the girl that Mackey fancied. Richie Latham appears initially as a tall figure in the long coat that is shorthand for a senior republican leader – as for instance in the recently screened RTÉ TV series Resistance. There, once the fictional hero Jimmy Mahon becomes a lieutenant of Michael Collins, he adopts a respectable formal wardrobe, including a long coat. Richie Latham has changed from diehard freedom fighter into gangster. He is still charismatic and sexy, but a bad egg, driven only by cruelty and pursuit of personal gain.
The reader is struck by idioms that belong to later periods than the 1920s, including some from our current discourse: (“back in the day”, “hospitality industry”, “be our guest”, “check it out”, “any time soon”, “give us a bell”, “get-out clause”, even “scarce garda resources”). Initially, I found this irritating, but I came to appreciate how it avoids the difficulty of stilted “historical” speech, and also conveys a sense of continuity with twenty-first century cliché – again, the resonance with today. The use of “Ms” in a couple of instances did strike me as too much of an anachronism: part of the credibility of the character of Annie Kelly stems from her image as a respectable young single woman, who has to be a “Miss”.
Whilst there are many, men and women, who are no better off as a result of independence, this is emphatically a man’s world. Neither in the barracks nor the bar (The Mount), where important conversations happen, are women taken seriously. Annie Kelly is lightly sketched, but emerges as a key actor: resilient and resourceful. She contrasts with the few other female characters, usually discounted or downtrodden.
In another resemblance to Chandler, the plot is busy, with a high body count, the consequence of “too many guns and too few brains”. The attentive reader may at times feel slightly more in the know than Mackey. The threads of the story come together, with some sudden twists. Amongst the set pieces: the big shootout at one of several bleak farmhouses, a deathbed confession and an official visit by Kevin O’Higgins – real-life minister for justice – work particularly well. Again, resonant in the light of later events.
Pauline Hall is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books. Her most recent novel is Eoin Doherty and The Fixers (2016).