The Devil I know By Claire Kilroy. Faber & Faber

by John Boland

In Claire Kilroy’s new novel, a corrupt government minister doesn’t send hirelings to collect brown envelopes for the rezoning favours he’s about to render – he brazenly turns up himself to meet the property developer at a local pub and walks away with a jiffy bag that’s bulging with banknotes.

In nearly every other detail, though, Kilroy’s picaresque chronicle of the Celtic Tiger’s greedy rise and abrupt fall sticks so close to what actually happened that the northside minister in question is given the conflationary name of Ray Lawless.

The book’s narrator has a more high-falutin moniker – Tristram Amory St Lawrence, inheritor of a fancy if run-down castle and otherwise known as the thirteenth Earl of Howth. And as the book opens, Tristram is giving evidence at a tribunal convened to investigate financial and property skullduggery in the Dublin area, with which he’s all too involved, having been persuaded by local roughneck builder Desmond Hickey to fund Hickey’s dodgy developments.

This he’s able to do through the auspices of Monsieur Deauville, a mysterious, somewhat sinister international money man to whom Tristram feels personally indebted and who persistently calls on his cellphone instructing his minion to provide Hickey with all the financial resources he requires. Then comes the sudden downturn, both global and local, which accounts for Tristram’s testimony at the tribunal.

Thirty-eight-year-old Dubliner Kilroy’s three previous novels, all very different from each other, suggested a restless writer eager for new challenges, but it’s difficult to know quite what she’s aiming for in The Devil I Know.

On a surface level, the book is never less than a well-paced and well-told cautionary tale, a page-turner with lots of droll moments as the author skewers the moral mindset that both created the Celtic Tiger and then brought it to its knees. But its seeming ambition to be more than just a rollicking yarn is undermined by the author’s recourse to easy hindsight when making political, economic and ethical points.

“Anything was possible in an Irish bank back then”, Tristram notes at one point. “We were getting rich by doing nothing”, he later reflects, while towards the end of the property boom he ponders that “across the country people were digging themselves into big holes, that big holes were spreading across Ireland like the pox, eating away at the heart of the island”.

The book is littered with such observations, presumably savage in intent but in reality merely trite statements of the obvious that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Joe Duffy show, The Front Line or from the liberal left benches in Dail Eireann.

More damaging, though, is the essentially implausible relationship that exists between Tristram and Hickey – the author never persuading us why her troubled toff of a narrator would have anything to do with a foul-mouthed yahoo whom he feared during their schooldays and who, as presented here, is not only unlikeable but fatally uninteresting, too. Why Tristram agreed to become embroiled with his grubby schemes and how he puts up with his abusive and tiresome rants is never explained.

As for Monsieur Deauville, he remains merely a vaguely unsettling enigma until near the end, when the introduction of a supernatural element attempts to give him a more baleful dimension, but this comes too late to carry any conviction and registers as something merely grafted onto the novel to lend it some spurious last-minute resonance.

The author is to be commended for confronting the hard realities of contemporary Ireland, but the book’s spirited narrative can’t conceal the fact that she has nothing much to say about it – or at least nothing that we don’t already know from newspapers, television, radio and our own experiences.

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