Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage is an excellent police procedural/crime thriller, really a police/crime procedural. The narrative in The Rage is largely split between a down on his luck police officer investigating a murder and a hapless group of criminals planning their first big robbery. The two narratives intersect when a retired nun spots the would be robbers parking their get-a-way car outside her apartment.
If there were nothing more in The Rage than this, the book would still be excellent reading, but there is much more. Gene Kerrigan uses his characters to take a close look at the societal problems in his setting, contemporary Ireland. At no point does he go so far as to make the book about social issues, it’s always a crime thriller, but it’s this examination of life in contemporary Ireland that set The Rage apart as far as I am concerned. Mr. Kerrigan does what Sjowall and Wahloo did in their Martin Beck series by joining the criminal investigation with their societal critique so well that the two become one story.
Mr. Kerrigan’s novel is set after two big busts: the bursting of Ireland’s economic bubble and the collapse of trust in the Catholic Church following revelations of systemic child abuse in church run orphanages and schools.
The first provides the background noise of the novels setting, but it’s a powerful noise. Mr. Kerigan’s post bubble Ireland feels like a dystopian future. It’s a landscape dotted with unfinished an abandoned construction projects, queues for food packages, rampant criminal activity, an overwhelmed police force. There’s a very strange sense of desperation mixed with resignation over the country’s future. A small time crime boss tells Vincent, the police detective hero of the novel about what happened to one of his men:
“Last week, he was picking up a Lancia, outside some fella’s house–Mount Merrion, I think, late in the evening, almost had the door open. Fella comes out of the house, stops and looks at Jimmy. Jimmy’s frozen, knows he should be running lie fuck, but he’s just standing there and the fella starts laughing. Throws his head back–Jimmy said the guy was half hysterical. –hooting like a fucking monkey. Fella puts his hand in his pocket, takes out his car keys and throws them to Jimmy. Take it, he says, off you go. They’re taking the house, he says, the judge gave me two weeks to move out. They’ve taken the credit cards. They’ve even taken the fucking Ten Year Ticket for Lansdowne Road. They’re coming for the car tomorrow. Fuck ’em, he says–you might as well have it.”
Kerrigan’s Ireland is a society out of balance. The rich who ruined Ireland’s economy and so many lives have yet to be held to any kind of account for their crimes, not a single person has gone to prison, even to trial at the time of The Rage. The church, on the other hand, has begun to pay a price for their decades old crimes, at least some of the clergy have begun to pay a price.
The two narratives in The Rage are linked by Maura, a retired nun who lives quietly in a walk-up apartment. One afternoon she sees a group of men wearing purple gloves park a car in front of her building and then walk away. Maura calls the police which brings her into contact with Detective Sergeant Bob Tidey who suspects, rightly, that someone is planning on using the car as their get-a-way vehicle. Tidey puts a watch on the car and becomes involved with Maura as a result.
The two form a close friendship as they begin to discover that they both have regrets, decisions they made, professional actions they took that have left them both in need of redemption. While Tidey’s crimes still leave him a sympathetic character, Maura’s are much more problematic. The author’s treatment of her is also problematic. While Kerrigan nevers lets the rich who left Ireland in the economic toilet off of the hook, he seems to be clearing a pathway for forgiving people like Maura, ex-clergy who participated in the abuse of children.
One evening, Maura confesses to Detective Tidey about the first time she hit a girl under her care until the girl cried. Maura was a young woman in her twenties, unable to find a way to deal with the girl’s open defiance except hitting her.
“There was no pleasure to take from what you did.”
“Oh, there was.” Maura shook her head. “I remember the feeling of achievement when that girl cried. There’d been a challenge to the natural order of things, and I faced it down. It was a great feeling. Looking back, I think maybe I felt shame even then–but maybe that’s me remembering things the way I want to remember them. The girl’s a middle-aged woman now–and if she’s still alive I know she still remembers what happened that day and I know she still hates me, and she’s right.”
Maura also knew about the sexual abuse that went on in many of Ireland’s orphanages, but she never did anything about it.
Once Ireland began to face this part of its collective past, Maura gave testimony in court. She has paid the price the legal system demanded of her, though there could never be a satisfactory price paid for the lives ruined by people like Maura. She appears to see this quite clearly in spite of Detective Tidey’s assurances that she should stop blaming herself for what happened. Tidey insists that there is forgiveness as the prayers all say.
I think there is much to be said for forgiveness, but Maura’s character made me very queasy by the end of The Rage. Is Mr. Kerrigan an apologist for abusers here? Is he asking the reader to forgive and forget? By making the abuser an object of sympathy, what does he hope to accomplish? Putting Maura in harms way, which happens in the novel’s very exciting closing chapters, makes the reader root for her; we can’t help ourselves. Whatever she is guilty of, she is not the guilty party in the novel’s criminal plot; she’s not committed any crime here. It’s an uncomfortable thing, being forced to sympathize with a person who has done something so bad. Even here, I’m not calling her a bad person though I think I should.
However, as far as police procedurals go, all of this moral gray area, this social commentary, this forcing the reader to examine long held beliefs, all serve to make The Rage one of the better detective novels I’ve read in a very long time. I’m ranking The Rage up with the best of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, the writing team who rule my personal pantheon of crime writers. I look forward to more by Gene Kerrigan.