Wednesday, January 31, 2007

THE STRANGLER by William Landay

Bantam Press, 2007 ISBN 9780593049538, £12.99

Landay’s second novel, following the award-winning Mission Flats, takes place in Boston just after the death of President Kennedy and in the height of the mysterious killings committed by a man known only as The Boston Strangler.

But all of this is merely backstory, motivation to move the real story of three Irish brothers who, despite their familial bond, have turned out remarkably different and morally fluid. There’s the older child, Joe, a cop caught up in the casual corruption that has permeated the force. The middle child, Michael, is a lawyer who specialises in parking tickets but finds himself moved to the Strangler Case. And then there’s Ricky, the youngest, who makes his living as a professional burglar.

In all honesty, the familial setup seems overly familiar and perhaps even a little trite. The Boston connection and the Irish family seem very familiar and even if there wasn’t that fraternal bond, there’s an atmosphere to the story that seems similar in some ways to Dennis Lehane’s superb Mystic River. These three are bound by a tragedy, too. In this case, the death of their father.

But Landay’s convincing historical setting and his economical yet effective prose serve to pull the reader into this unfortunately familiar setup. And as the novel progresses, we see past these apparent limitations as Landay’s portrayal of characters- both as individuals and as family members – gives us concise yet convincing psychological portraits. These people become important to us and, as convincing as the backdrop is, they are finally more important than the “larger” events that surround and affect them.

The Strangler is at once an excellent evocation of a time and place that is now infamous in history, a convincingly creepy story of the search for a serial killer (and the Strangler is handled perfectly here; nothing too grand giugnol and yet still convincingly unsettling) and an exploration of family and the connections between people.

Landay is a talented writer, and The Strangler is more of a historical exploration than a historical crime novel. There is more in common here with the kind of historical crime practiced by Ellroy (although, naturally, it is nowhere near as stylised or bleakly noir as Ellroy’s work) than the usual “stick a standard mystery into a historical time of your choice” approach taken by many writers. No, this is a novel about a time and place that happens to hang on the shoulders of a crime. And this makes it all the stronger, closer to what this reviewer believes the best crime stories are about. In fact, the strongest and most affecting resolutions are the personal ones and even after the apparent mystery of the Strangler seems to reach a resolution, there are still a few more – even more shocking – revelations to be made. And these are the ones that truly affect the reader.

Despite its occasional lapse into familial clichés, The Strangler is a powerful, evocative novel from a writer who understands the power of the crime novel and is unafraid to use it. With an excellent feel for the period and the paranoia invoked by the stranglings during that long, hot, Boston summer, The Strangler uses the trappings of the crime novel to explore not only a significant era in modern history, but also ideas of family and responsibility against a backdrop of fear.

Russel D McLean for, 31/01/07