August of 2008 was a good month for me: I was asked to review Declan Burke’s The Big O. My first Burke, it will always hold a special place for me. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and was treated to writing not quite like anyone else’s. Influences are evident—Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake come to mind—but no one had Burke’s unique voice and willingness to keep everyone unsure of what’s going to happen next.
I’ve since read all of Squire Burke’s novels. The promise shown in The Big O—and its predecessor, Eightball Boogie—has not gone to waste. Absolute Zero Cool and Slaughter’s Hound build upon his previous work to display a considerable and growing talent worthy of mention in the same breath as Ken Bruen and Declan Hughes.
The Big O did not receive the play it deserved in this country; it’s hard to believe Harcourt never even thought to release an e-book version. Burke has taken care of this oversight by releasing The Big O for e-book in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland. ($4.99 / £4.99 / €4.99) Below is my original review, as it appeared in New Mystery Reader in September 2008.
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Irish author Declan Burke is regularly compared to Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, even though The Big O is only his second novel. Anyone that new receiving that kind of praise has earned a skeptical eye, just as Leonard and Westlake have earned their legends. Burke and his cast of losers are up to it.
Karen King works days for a defrocked plastic surgeon named Frank Dolan; by night she pulls armed robberies for extra cash. Ray Brogan surprises her during a job and doesn't flinch when she draws down on him with a .44. They're a good match: Ray's also a two-career man, alternating between painting murals in children's bedrooms and his more lucrative gig as a kidnapper for insurance fraud scams. Karen's boss, Frank, can't operate anymore after several customers woke up looking like losing boxers. His ex-wife, Madge, is going through the female equivalent of mid-life crisis. Rossi Francis Assisi Callaghan just finished a five years jolt as a three-time loser. His idea of going straight is to open a co-op for cons, where they can fence their swag under the guise of a charity. His getaway driver, Sleeps, is narcoleptic. Detective Stephanie Doyle thinks she has a handle on an investigation, if only she could be sure what she's investigating. Then there's Anna, a true force of nature, Burke's version of Chekhov's gun over the mantel; once you get a full grasp of her, you know something has to happen.
The story launches—"starts" is too tame a word—with Frank's plan to have Madge kidnapped so he can defraud his insurance of half a million pounds. He doesn't want her hurt, though the half million would go a long way toward helping him get over it. He contacts Ray's "agent," to set the scheme in motion. Ray doesn't know Karen works for Frank when she points her gun at him; Karen doesn't know Ray's also working for Frank, in a manner of speaking. Rossi manages to touch them all, usually inadvertently. Everyone has an angle, and no one is as smart as he or she thinks they are.
Burke has a deft touch for keeping the reader only far enough ahead of the characters to build anticipation while still keeping the results a surprise. The characters and their plotlines are incestuously intertwined. Everyone knows, or gets to know, everyone else, whether as friends, lovers, or victims; sometimes more than one. This could be a failing in a book that takes itself too seriously; no worries here. The Big O is virtually a satire of noir fiction, cynically disdainful of everyone's plans. You know nothing will work out the way anyone wants it to.
It's the anticipation of how badly fouled up things will get that keeps the story moving. At times it's like reading a description of a Marx Brothers or Three Stooges short. People coming and going, no one sure what the others are up to, and not planning as if they'd care if they did know. Burke's voice and writing style are indebted to Elmore Leonard, as are the characters, but Leonard never plotted so intricately. That's where the Westlake influence comes out, as complicated and interconnected plot lines are kept moving with humor and improbability that never quite becomes implausible. Burke isn't one of those writers for whom humor is an abstract concept that tickles a small part of the back of your mind, and you think, "Oh. That was clever." The Big O is laugh out loud funny when he wants it to be, which is often.
A couple of things don't work as well as they might. One can hardly be helped: bits of terminology don't make their way across the Atlantic as seamlessly as others. There are times a Yank might fancy a glossary; it will pass as you get deeper into the book. Of a little more concern is the final scene, where the complications here are a little harder to follow, and the (appropriately) diminished humor can't cover a couple of bumps, and one twist too many. Still, he treats the ending with the respect it deserves, and doesn't the power of what's happening by keeping the laugh machine running full speed.
I came to The Big O with high expectations and had them exceeded. From the coolest cover of any book published this year (with the possible exception of Christa Faust's Money Shot), through the twists and turns of its cast of not-always-lovable losers, The Big O is big fun. It's just as well Harcourt couldn't get it out in time for beach season; too many people would be staring, wondering what the hell you were laughing at.
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I’ve read about three hundred books since then. Few have blended humor, violence, and suspense as well as The Big O. This is not Tarantino’s vision of comedic violence, laughing at things that make you feel squeamish about yourself later. This is a series of crimes undertaken by criminals who aren’t as smart as they think they are. They do stupid shit, and it’s funny. The Big O is still one of my favorite books, and I expect it will be for as long as I’m reading. Do yourself a favor and get over there.