Serpent's Tail Press
ISBN: 1852426934
BUTETOWN, circa 1989—Sean Burke's debut crime-noir novel Deadwater opens with its main character in a quandary. A young prostitute has been murdered. Jack Farissey, an alcoholic and drug addicted pharmacist, wakes covered in her blood and lying on a plastic sheet with no memory of how or why he got into this state.
         What strikes this reviewer is that the murder and much of the mayhem of this novel is accepted with strange nonchalance by Farissey. He doesn't seem to take the fact that he woke up with blood on his hands, not remembering a thing, as all that serious a personal matter. What somewhat saves Burke here is that he quickly moves the plot to point the finger at a local gangster, Carl Baja, although unconvincingly. Not until late in the book does the reader sense any real anger from Farissey toward himself, his decisions, his actions. And even then, it is not a proper anger, but detachment. There is no fight in him. Not for his innocence, not for his girlfriend, not for his home, friends, honor, pride. Nothing. He is a non-man, an empty man.
         A lot of the novel's dialogue has a jaunty 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' quality that makes it unconvincing. Many of the minor characters seem to float in and out as if in a drugged dream. It is in the narrative and inner-dialogue where Burke shines, more as poet than fiction writer or genre novelist. A little too late, we are given the story of Farissey's boyhood friend Jess, who evolves into a much more interesting character than Farissey. Perhaps if Farissey was more like Jess, the book would have been better and wrought with more suspense and conflict.
         Another facet lacking in this novel is a distinct connection with Wales. The action could have happened almost anywhere. We do get the glimpses of how the old neighborhood is changing as Cardiff attempts to take its place as the capital of Wales and its representative in the outside world, but those images feel like throw-ins. Butetown is a doomed of the past and the New Cardiff must be built on top of its ashes. Walk down St. Mary's Street on any Saturday night between midnight and two in the morning, and you may get a glimpse of the past—faux-debauched University students drugging, vomiting, fighting in the alleys. With the posh cafés and upscale bars sprouting up in resurrected Cardiff mingling with the whimsical hedonism of the Uni students, maybe Burke is depressed for the loss of what once was. It's somewhat like reminiscing for an old girlfriend, who, even though she was foul-mouthed, uncultured and insane, was much more exciting and spontaneous than the placid shallowness and shine of the new.
         But beyond these criticisms, and perhaps because of them, Burke does weave an existentially interesting story. For a first novel, its merits outweigh its faults and it will be interesting to see if he can duplicate or better it in the second round.