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Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Anglo-Irish Murders

I’ve just finished listening to an audiobook, The Anglo-Irish Murders, by the Irish author Ruth Dudley Edwards. Rates a cautious thumbs-up from where I stand. But I learned from a former boss that where you stand depends on where you sit; in other words, opinions change when you change positions. (Notice what happens when a small-government advocate gets into the White House, for example.) I suppose that if I suddenly became an Irish Catholic, or an Irish-American Catholic, my POV on this book would be different, but that will have to remain nothing more than a thought-experiment.

The audio version is beautifully read by Bill Wallis on a $64.95 CD (that’s why you check it out from the library). Wallis endows the characters with individual personae and immediately takes the listener into the world of the story. He makes the experience feel like watching a play performed by a dozen excellent actors.

It’s obvious from the title that this book is a murder mystery; what’s not so obvious (unless you’re familiar with the author’s previous works) is that it’s also a satire. At least it’s not obvious until you’ve read the first couple of pages, by which point no doubt is left. The plot revolves around a conference on Anglo-Irish multicultural sensitivities organized by the Brits and held in a somewhat secluded castle in Ireland. Conferees are being killed off one by one — sounds a bit like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, doesn’t it? And yes, along with being a political satire, it is also a parody of the Christie work. In a touch of post-modern self-reference, one of the characters even makes the comparison explicit. Although not connected with the parts of the satire that focus on Anglo-Irish relations and the IRA, the Christie parody matches the portions of the satire that deal with political correctness and ethnic stereotypes.

I usually pay no attention to reviews posted on amazon.com, since they’re typically written by uninformed members of the public whose opinions are of little value. (It reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s line that “the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.”) But of course not all posted reviews are dumb; occasionally one comes across a review that’s well-written, articulate, compelling, and wrong. Such is the wrong-headed piece by Brian Callahan, an Irish-American who has let where he sits control where he stands. Missing (or rather denying) the satire, he writes as if the views of the characters reflect the views of the author:
Outlandish characters like an Indian and a Japanese are shown to be wise men, even though vilified by racial epithets by the British baroness in charge of the conference in the castle... The author goes so far as to claim that the Irish Potato Famine was not an example of British inhumanity, but just “a spot of bad management”... the author’s polemics against the entire Irish race and against the Catholic Church in particular ruined the book for me.
I don’t know about the Irish “race,” but the polemics are the characters’, not the author’s. It’s true that the Catholic Church doesn’t come out so well in this novel, and perhaps Callahan is also basing his judgment on the author’s non-fiction writings, though that’s hardly a fair technique when reviewing a work of fiction. For example, on her website, Ruth Dudley Edwards refers to her native Ireland as “a country culturally conditioned by an authoritarian church to suppress any questioning of orthodoxy.”

The novel’s satirical descriptions of political correctness and ethnic sensitivities are amusing and to the point, though they begin to wear on the reader (listener) after a while. That’s my only real reservation about this mystery: about halfway through, it begins to be much of the same over and over again. But I still recommend it.

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