Book review: The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley

A spine-chillinging unsettling and darkly hilarious debut.

Jeremy Massey

Riverhead, €15.39

"LIFE is just a dream from which we all awaken,” claims the eponymous narrator in the prologue to The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley, and Paddy Buckley knows of what he speaks: an undertaker given to philosophical musing, Paddy is speaking to us from beyond the grave.

It’s an ambitious opening, especially as this is Jeremy Massey’s debut offering, but the story quickly delivers on its early promise. 

Paddy is a widower still mourning the loss of his wife Eva, who died suddenly whilst seven months pregnant; when Paddy calls on the beautiful Lucy Wright, to make the funeral arrangements for her husband Michael, he is stunned when the traditional pieties lead to an amorous encounter.

Distraught at his unethical behaviour, Paddy is even more shocked when Lucy dies immediately afterwards, of an angina attack, leaving Paddy to break the bad news to Lucy’s daughter Brigid when she arrives at the family home. 

Worse again, Brigid is more beautiful than Lucy, and Paddy finds himself falling for the doubly bereaved daughter.

With his blackly humorous farce underway, Massey piles on the comi-tragedy: driving home from work in the early hours, an exhausted and distracted Paddy knocks down a pedestrian. 

No ordinary pedestrian, either: Paddy has run over and killed Donal Cullen, beloved brother of Dublin’s most notorious criminal, Vincent Cullen.

And it’s only a matter of time, of course, before Paddy gets the call to make the funeral arrangements for Donal. 

In a remarkably assured debut novel, Jeremy Massey delivers a hugely entertaining take on the Irish noir novel.

Author Jeremy Massey delivers a remarkably assured debut novel.

Steeped in death, and narrated by the disembodied voice of Paddy Buckley, the novel is nevertheless a rollicking tale of life’s absurdities, as the guilt-ridden Paddy twists and turns in a desperate bid to outrun the fate he has already told us awaits him. 

Persuasively blending crime and comedy is no easy matter, but Massey strikes exactly the right tone: the scene in which Paddy explains the embalming process to a creepily attentive Vincent Cullen, for example, is both darkly hilarious and spine-chillingly unsettling.

This is largely due to Massey’s talent for crafting well-rounded characters — Paddy, our flawed hero, is sympathetically drawn, a good man who finds himself the butt of fate’s sick sense of humour. 

Vincent Cullen, for his part, is initially every inch the intimidating bruiser we might expect from a crime fiction villain, but it’s in his other facets — the thoughtful strategist, the loving father, the grieving brother — that Vincent truly comes to life. 

Even the minor characters (including an unusual hybrid guard-dog) are expertly sketched in.

Unsurprisingly, given Jeremy Massey’s background, the ‘privilege of being an undertaker’ is beautifully detailed, with Paddy offering an intriguing insight into the mindset of those men and women who are death’s attendants on a daily basis. 

Indeed, the most poignant scene in the novel occurs when Paddy and his associates carry away a corpse from a dormitory housing down-and-outs, their progress mutely observed by terrified old men wondering if it will be their turn next.

Ultimately, and despite the fatalistic tone established in the prologue, The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley is a comic tour-de-force that blends high farce and slapstick (the high-speed chase involving a hearse is priceless) into a classic noir tale of a man doomed and damned before the story ever begins, its frantic pace underpinned with sobering observations on mortality that linger long after the tale concludes.

It’s a heady combination, one that establishes Jeremy Massey as a unique voice in the new generation of Irish authors as a comic novelist of the first order.

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