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'City of Lost Girls': A hard-boiled detective story with a romantic touch

In his fifth novel featuring Dublin private investigator Ed Loy, Declan Hughes: Sets major parts of the story in Los Angeles, complete with breathtaking and melancholy scenery.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

City of Lost Girls
nolead ends nolead begins By Declan Hughes

William Morrow. 304 pp $24.99

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Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky

In his fifth novel featuring Dublin private investigator Ed Loy, Declan Hughes:

Sets major parts of the story in Los Angeles, complete with breathtaking and melancholy scenery.

Gets inside a serial killer's head.

Sends great torrents of yearningly romantic prose tumbling onto the page.

Offers up any number of wisecracks and world-weary observations.

Crime writers have done all that for years, so how does Hughes keep it fresh?

By the sheer exuberance of his prose, including some gleeful stomping on Bono's reputation.

By the angry topicality of his observations (" . . . you're the only one who gave a damn about them, Ed. Nobody else noticed they were lost. Although no doubt once the TV gets going on the Three-in-One Killer, all manner of traumatized parents and siblings will emerge, weeping and wailing for the cameras like a bunch of bought-and-paid-for whores.")

And mostly by the high respect he has for mystery.

Hughes pays subtle, effective tribute to the old-time mystery tradition of lining up suspects one by one, but it's mystery of a deeper kind that underlies the story:

"You can't extrapolate from someone's childhood and background that he would step over the edge and act in this particular way," Loy tells us. "That's what I find so problematic about criminal profiling: it's magical thinking, when you boil it down, a kind of elaborate system of guesswork and hunch-playing. Nothing wrong with that, I operate pretty much the same way. Every detective does. . . . We just don't dress it up the way the criminal profile boys do, calling it behavioral science and making claims for its near infallibility."

That's a nicely contemporary expression of the traditional hard-boiled P.I. worldview. More to the point, it's just one example of the book's touching philosophical humility. Nothing human is ever certain or definite in Ed Loy's world or the killer's.

The tentative reconciliations at novel's end are all the more affecting for that fragility. And that is one hell of an update of the hard-boiled P.I.'s romantic side.

Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its follow-ups have made international crime fiction a search for the Next Big Thing. Camilla Läckberg received a big advance for her American debut (she has published seven novels in her native Sweden), and even Henning Mankell, father of the current boom in Nordic crime writing, is said to have ridden Larsson's coattails to bigger sales.

But before Scandinavia there was Ireland, and Declan Hughes is just one of a rich vein of post-Celtic Tiger crime authors from both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. Ken Bruen, Stuart Neville, Tana French, Gene Kerrigan, Brian McGilloway, Declan Burke, Adrian McKinty, and others write a generally hard-boiled brand of crime fiction made all the more accessible to American readers by the authors' deep interest in and creative spins on such North American masters as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard, and, in Hughes' case, Ross Macdonald.

Hughes confronts the P.I. story's hoary conventions and embraces them with even more zest than did his hard-boiled predecessors. Take the set piece about the client, almost always a woman, who surprises the P.I. in his office.

The P.I. generally knows as well as we readers do that the dame is trouble, but a few laconic words of foreboding and resignation usually suffice to convey this. Not for Hughes. Here's how Ed Loy's two-chapter meeting with Anne Fogarty ends in Hughes' previous novel, All the Dead Voices:

"I could hear the sound of the blood in my ears, breathe her scent deep inside me. Stupid, I told myself, stupid, stupid, but I didn't believe me, or I did, but I just didn't care. Worse still, I allowed myself hope."

Did Ross Macdonald's novels have an undertone of romanticism? Hughes' have an entire orchestra, and he has the writing chops to pull it off.