Black Rose Days is a decent book. It has good characterisation, a solid plot, and the structure is sound – but for a murder mystery in a competitive market of polished thrillers and well-oiled crime novels, is that enough?
Unusually, the book opens with the voice of the victim, speaking to us from beyond the grave, some 31 years in the past: “Ena is what they call me but I grew up being called Mena, and to be honest I always preferred Mena . . . I used to have long beautiful red hair and I was always so skinny, with small curves, even after I started working in the chipper’s that I never really liked working in . . . ”
The switch from present tense to past tense can be confusing, and happens more than once, such as later, when Ena describes moving up in the world. “Han and Luigi had probably bad-mouthed me to them, and they might have thought I had some nerve for trying to better myself – Kildarragh people can be funny, and not hah-hah funny, either.”
It’s difficult to know whether this switch in tense is deliberate. To allow a dead character to make statements about the present is a risky strategy, and not wholly successful. We do, however, get a good sense of Ena as a person, naïve and drawn to the seedier side of life, something missing from a lot of whodunnits.
However, as the book is a whodunnit, the reader will have certain expectations as to the pacing of the story. Dan, Ena’s former husband, returns to Ireland from the States. He has been haunted by her death, which is having repercussions in his current marriage to Irene, a tarot reader. It isn’t until page 116 that he declares, “I’m going to find the killer”, which the reader will have been waiting for from the beginning.
Dan was the prime suspect in Ena’s death, the murder has never been solved, he pines for her still, and all this, plus the promise of a resolution to Dan and Irene’s marital problems should the mystery be solved, should give the narrative an inherent drive forward, but instead, there is a huge amount of set-up until this moment. It’s almost halfway through before the switch from character-driven literary novel to full-blown murder mystery takes place.
As well as Ena and Dan, Irene is a point-of-view character in her own right. This works perfectly fine for a literary novel, but Irene’s story is not part of the mystery, although her tarot reading provides some clues, which the reader is asked to accept on merit. This would, perhaps, have been more believable had we been told which cards Irene was drawing in order to make her judgments, but the results are simply presented to further Dan’s investigation.
There is also a curious leakage between Irene’s American slang and Ena’s working-class Dublin idioms. At one point, Irene refers to “men’s mickeys” – perhaps she could have picked up this slang from Dan? – but she also notices Dan admiring a woman’s “butt”. The inconsistency is jarring, more so when Ena also uses the word “butt”. I can believe in a young woman speaking from beyond the grave, but don’t tell me a working-class girl from inner-city Dublin wouldn’t use the word “arse”.
Irene does have a lovely moment when she contemplates mortality. “Still, let’s be clear: murderers and their victims lie in the same cemetery, the truth that binds them never breaking silence.”
Ena, too, gets moments of pathos. “I used to think about becoming a model, but that’s the problem with dreams for people like me, where I come from: dreams were what happened to other people – nightmares were what happened to us, because we were born into one and were too busy surviving it to see if we had a bigger picture.”
Observations such as these lift the prose beyond the mundane, but they come quite late in the narrative.
The unravelling of the mystery, when it eventually happens, is not the deft act of detection most readers would expect. Perhaps this dampening of genre convention is deliberate, but we usually read mysteries because we want to be dazzled by the solution.
Still, the clues are fair, the solution makes sense, and the various plot elements do come together in the end, with Irene’s contribution fitting in to Dan’s discovery of the truth. There is no blinding moment of realisation. Dan is not a classic detective hero. The mystery is unravelled without fanfare, and the final chapter belongs to Ena.
All told, Black Rose Days is more a portrait of the murder victim than a mystery in the conventional sense, which is likely to divide readers. It will most appeal to those looking for a picture of a lost, lonely girl, given an inner life.