BEAST OF BURDEN is the fourth novel in the chronicles of Cal Innes, an unlicensed and unlucky private investigator in Manchester, England. For the most part, the short stories and book-length works that have featured Innes have been unrelentingly grim, and this latest installment is no exception. Indeed, while the song of the same title by the Rolling Stones ran through my head from first page to last, a death metal soundtrack might have been more appropriate. Violent and graphic, and informed with a dark worldview, BEAST OF BURDEN contains almost everything for which we read noir literature.
"...gutsy, real and poignant... BEAST OF BURDEN solidifies Banks’s reputation as one of the hardest of the new breed of hard-boiled authors."
Innes is bloodied and bent, the downside of 30 and struggling with the significant residuals of a stroke that have left him unable to walk without the use of a cane, subject to unexpectedly seizing up, and occasionally at a loss for words. Still, he is rocked by the death of his brother, an unrepentant addict who has turned his frequent attempts at rehabilitation into a revolving door that at last became permanently stuck. At approximately the same time, Innes is presented with an opportunity to right some longstanding wrongs against two of his major antagonists who happen to be on diametrically opposing sides of the law. Mo Tiernan is missing, and his father, Morris the Senior, wants him found. Innes holds Morris directly and indirectly responsible for his physical and professional problems as well as the destruction of his own family.
Meanwhile, Innes must continue to contend with Detective Sergeant “Donkey” Donkin. Hung with a nickname he positively detests, Donkin is a badly bent homicide detective whose enmity towards Innes and his friends is well known on the Manchester streets. As it becomes more certain that Mo Junior is dead, Innes begins concocting a scheme that will bring Morris into a collision not only with his estranged daughter but also with Donkin, whose issues with his temper threaten to permanently derail his career.
Innes, however, is playing a deadly game, and his physical and mental acuity leave much to be desired at this point. Even if he should succeed in bringing both of his adversaries down, the odds are better than even that he, as well as those for which he cares the most, will be caught in the crossfire. A series of violent encounters results in a cataclysmic ending that leaves nothing the same and few of the characters --- if any --- intact.
Those who are unfamiliar with the Innes canon undoubtedly would be best served by reading the short stories and three novels that precede BEAST OF BURDEN, to acquaint themselves with both the back story that figures so prominently and with the rhythm and flow of Banks’s storytelling. Banks is a dark gutter poet, trolling territory so brilliantly covered by Ken Bruen in his own Jack Taylor stories, and with similar effect. And while the book is complete in itself, the sledgehammer impact of the ending will be all the more intense if the journey through Innes’s dark life is fully experienced from the beginning. Was it the ending I wanted? No. Was I disappointed with it? Absolutely not. It is gutsy, real and poignant. BEAST OF BURDEN solidifies Banks’s reputation as one of the hardest of the new breed of hard-boiled authors.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 8, 2011