The Price of Blood
nolead ends nolead begins By Declan Hughes

William Morrow.

320 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky

A fist to the jaw carries with it an intimacy that a bullet to the gut just can't match, not to mention the possibility that attacker and victim can share a chat after they clean themselves up.

The Price of Blood, Declan Hughes' third novel about Dublin private eye Edward Loy, contains several such scenes. These may amuse those of us accustomed to fictional violence of a more final kind, and they are a key to understanding Hughes' world.

Like others in Ireland's current crop of brilliant crime writers, he is skeptical about the country's recent economic boom. More than most, however, he unfolds his dramas against a background of the earlier, pre-Celtic-Tiger, pre-easier-availability-of-guns Ireland. Ken Bruen writes about wrecked souls making their way through a country racked and wrecked by change. Hughes' Ireland, though also contemporary, is more redolent of the ancient truths: church, intimate violence and, above all, family or, as his characters most often put it, blood.

Here, a priest has summoned Loy, telling him only that "It's about a boy." The priest knows more than that, of course, "much more. But what I know was told to me in confession, Ed. You remember the rules about that, don't you?" Note the secrecy, the invocation of the confessional, and the highly charged association of priest and boy, and you'll grasp some of the terrible intimacy that marks The Price of Blood. But only some of it.

Since family is so important in these grim, funny pages, let's meet some of the families. At the heart of the book are the Tyrrells, whose members include the priest who hires Ed Loy, as well as a fabulously successful horse trainer and breeder - a manipulator, that is, of bloodlines. There are the Halligans, three criminal brothers riven by rivalries of their own. There are the Butlers, two of whose women, we are told, got their revenge on an abusive father and grandfather by taking him to a cliff's edge and throwing him off, " 'a grand 'oul story,' Hook Nose said, 'like in a film or something, only for the fact that the daughters are . . . savages too, and they've raised broods of savages: junkies and dealers and whores."

Hughes began the main body of his first book with one of my favorite opening lines: "The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband." The Price of Blood takes more time getting to the heart of things. One has to wait until the end of the first paragraph for the comic payoff:

"Two weeks before Christmas, Father Vincent Tyrrell asked Tommy Owens to fill in for George Costello, who has been the sacristan at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Bayview for thirty years. . . . A lot of Father Tyrrell's parishioners were outraged, to put it mildly, since Tommy was known as a dopehead and a malingerer and a small-time drug dealer. . . . And fair enough, the first time I saw Tommy on the altar in cassock and surplice, it was a bit like something out of a Buñuel film."

That's not a bad way to begin a story. In fact, it's a little story in itself, complete with buildup and rhythm and punch line. That delight in telling stories, even tragic ones, reveals itself everywhere in The Price of Blood and leavens its sad, inescapable tragedy.

Though the novel explores themes as ancient as tragedy itself, it also offers portraits of the newer Ireland: its horsey set, its failed entrepreneurs, the residents of its council estates - public housing for the working classes. And, yes, Hughes jabs occasionally at the callow greed of the Celtic Tiger.

At its heart, though, Hughes' book is far more about old things than new. "Everyone's allowed a past," Ed Loy reflects, "and if we weren't able to forgive and forget much of what went on there, our lives would run aground on banks of grievance and resentment. That's what I told myself, not what I felt in my chest or in my gut."