McGowan’s second noir (after Stag Hunt, 2004), set largely in London’s seedier precincts and featuring colorful hoods, record-industry sharks, Nietzsche-quoting enforcers and cross-dressing power bassists, is fast-paced, brutal and surprisingly meditative.
To supplement his meager wages as a night-school academic, Matthew Moriarty takes a job vetting the would-be clientele at a high-end bar, deciding who will get past the velvet ropes—but trouble erupts when this philosopher-king of the bouncers rebuffs a local mobster named Bernie Mueller. Bad idea. Soon after, Mueller and two thugs drag Moriarty into an alleyway, where they beat him savagely, humiliate him, mutilate his ear. Months later, a chastened and raging Moriarty, now an unemployed semi-cripple just emerging from a painkiller addiction, takes on the well-paid task of finding his boyhood friend Ju, a well-regarded session musician who’s been putting the final touches on the magnum opus that might at last boost him to stardom. Ju, who served as a silent benefactor to Moriarty during his convalescence, has disappeared, and his record company wants him found and returned to the fold. Though the novel’s ending hits a false note, offering a string of convenient coincidences, McGowan constructs a suspenseful plot and writes barbed, forceful dialogue, and his account of mean-streets London and Leeds, especially of pubs and housing projects, is powerfully grim. Best of all is his portrayal of Moriarty, a man both thoughtful and vengeful, cunning and naïve, cynical and guilt-ridden. McGowan especially excels in the scenes in which Moriarty, hobbling along with the help of a cane that doubles as a weapon, roams the streets and contemplates the sewage-choked rivulets of his boyhood hometown, Leeds, as he tries to unravel the mystery of Ju’s vanishing and sorts through bittersweet memories of his own.
A shady and literate thriller that oozes down-and-out ambience—and featuring, in the tradition of the best noir, a damaged and ambivalent knight errant.