I always thought of Buffalo, New York as 1) the last major U.S. city that one passes through on the way to Niagara Falls, and 2) a place where the snow in winter drifts to rooftop heights. Things have changed, though, since I read BLACK IRISH, Stephan Talty’s sharp and riveting debut novel. Buffalo, based on Talty’s representations, is a city of thousands of stories, kept close and personal.
"Where the book really shines...is in Talty’s warts-and-all description of Buffalo, which is so fascinating that a near-future pilgrimage to visit some of the landmarks mentioned here is all but assured... You may be able to resist that siren call, but you won’t be able to resist BLACK IRISH from its opening page to its stunning conclusion."
Talty is no stranger to the book industry, having authored an enviable number of acclaimed nonfiction works on a variety of topics ranging from race issues to pirates. He plows new ground with BLACK IRISH, a page-turning mystery that takes place in The County, the closely-held Irish neighborhood that comprises the heart of south Buffalo. The story is told primarily from the viewpoint of Absalom “Abbie” Kearney, the adopted daughter of a legendary policeman. Abbie left home, graduated from Harvard, and after some twists and turns acquired a policeman’s badge. When she returns to her nominal hometown, it is not because she misses the local cuisine; rather, she is there to care for her father, who is experiencing the early ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Upon joining the Buffalo police force, Abbie faces reactions ranging from the rejection that greets an outsider to a grudging respect that is accorded her due to her lineage.
Her true baptism by fire comes with the disappearance and subsequent grisly discovery of a local ne’er-do-well named Jimmy Ryan. Ryan’s murder appears to be ritualistic in nature, and the location where his body is found is such that it is all but certain there are witnesses who know at least something. No one is forthcoming, however, and as the area closes ranks in silence, it is not entirely clear whether The County is going to protect or avenge its own. The most Abbie can get, other than a tenuous clue here and there, are statements that could be either well-intended warnings or ill-concealed threats. The killer is not finished, and when it appears that the choice of victims intersects with Abbie’s own past, she slowly comes to realize that the question as to the murderer’s identity may well be answered by a source close at hand --- if she can only find the key that will unlock the past.
Those who are fans of Nordic noir and such British stalwarts as Tana French will find much to love here. Abbie is by turns a strong and fragile heroine, and the intersection of her professional and personal problems is interwoven throughout this fine story of how the errors, omissions and sins of the past ripple forward through generations. The occasional conversations between Abbie and her father reveal a bridge that predates the onset of Dad’s illness. Where the book really shines, though, is in Talty’s warts-and-all description of Buffalo, which is so fascinating that a near-future pilgrimage to visit some of the landmarks mentioned here is all but assured, better judgment to the contrary. You may be able to resist that siren call, but you won’t be able to resist BLACK IRISH from its opening page to its stunning conclusion.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 19, 2013