Penance by Dan O’Shea
Appreciating style is highly subjective. It would be so much easier if society had agreed metrics so we could dismiss a book as too florid if the percentage of adjectives in a text exceeded 20% or that consistently more than three clauses in a sentence made it a literary rather than a genre book, and so on. Indeed, the moment you open the Pandora’s Box of analysis, you’re immediately caught up in judging the way language is used in the text. Let’s start asking questions. Are the words more important than the ideas? Is a poetic style using metaphor able to address a more sophisticated set of images than a conventional prose style? Where do we rank credibility, originality, psychological depth, and the morality of the acts and omissions described? So because no-one has ever defined a coherent set of criteria against which to measure the quality of any given artistic work, we’re left with all these vague feelings which crystalise into like and dislike as we read.
So here comes Penance by Dan O’Shea (Exhibit A, 2013). This is his first novel after publishing a collection of short stories. It introduces Detective John Lynch of the Chicago Police. He’s of Irish ancestry and, because of his family, has connections to the powerbrokers in the Windy City. His father, Declan Lynch, was a straight cop who was killed on the job. Taking that as his inspiration, John Lynch has steered clear of the corruption. His uncle, on the other hand, has always been a player, working for Paddy Wang, the regional kingmaker. Those with the real power always need people to front for them. That way, the puppet masters can stay in the shadows while getting the results they want. The plot therefore depends on a political drama that was played out in 1971. To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say, an unfortunate incident is exploited to achieve a number of significant results. Many different people had to be involved. All those who could be trusted were given rewards of different types. The remainder met unfortunate ends.
Coming forward to the present time, the title to the book sets the tone of the plot. This is a sins of the fathers story. Most of the original players are now dead, but their children live on, some continuing in their fathers’ footsteps. One of these children decides to do penance by killing the guilty who survive from 1971. This man has highly refined skills, having trained as a sniper and then worked off the books for the US government. When he goes off the reservation, his agency is tasked with killing him before he can do any real damage. This leads to a direct conflict of interests when the first victim is shot in Chicago and the case is given to John Lynch. My first problem is with the mounting scale of the debacle as the body count rises and the cover-ups swing into place. The different factions in government all have slightly different agendas depending on whether their interests are threatened or not. As their motives do not align, co-ordination breaks down and there’s in-fighting. In the midst of all this, John Lynch very conveniently finds a file his father had hidden away. This clarifies many of the facts in the 1971 cover-up and suggests his father was murdered. We then get into John Lynch collecting a small number of trusted people around him to hold down the Chicago end. He’s also approached by one government faction who supply self-interested support. This leaves our man in the middle trying to do the boy-scout thing of keeping as many people alive as possible while taking down all the bad guys, no matter who they are.
I’m not convinced much of this is even remotely credible but, I suppose, if you’re going to write a modern thriller, you don’t worry too much about keeping a lid on your imagination. If the detail all fits into a coherent plot and you’re writing about a group of people with sociopathic tendencies, you stop worrying whether they would shoot people. As sociopaths they would not only shoot them, they would double cap them in the head to make sure they were dead and then look for the next person to shoot. If there were witnesses, they would be unfortunate collateral damage. And so on. Politically, this is all sanctioned because people in government office prefer to stay in office. Morally they are no better than the killers they send out to clean-up the damage. The result is a depressing litany of corruption and criminality.
Then we come to the style which I confess to not liking very much. In part, it’s a judgement of taste, e.g. a man parks his Jaguar sedan in a portico big enough to hold Bill Clinton’s libido. I suppose similes like this are amusing to some readers. There’s actually one joke close to the end which did make me smile. But I think a lot of the humour badly misjudged. I’m also disturbed when an author refers to characters as, “the small Chinese sociopath”. We have a range of different killers paraded before our eyes: from America, Israel and, yes, China. But it’s the casual attribution of nationality that somehow distinguishes between degrees of efficiency in killing. Sadly, the Israelis don’t come out of this pissing contest very well. I could go on listing all the different ways the text made me flinch but all that does is give my subjective impressions. You might very well think this type of police procedural which rapidly shifts gear into a flat-out political thriller is your kind of book. If so, you’ll no doubt find Penance a top-class read. But if you prefer a book to have a reasonable amount of credibility and some psychological depth to the characters (the sociopaths outnumber the sane characters by a significant margin), this is not for you.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.