Engrossing unreliability

Dead Dogs

Joe Murphy
Liberties Press, €12.99 
Review: Val Nolan 

A story of dysfunctional teenagers and suburban secrets set in contemporary Wexford, Joe Murphy’s sophomore effort trades heavily on paranoia, psychosis, and questions regarding the reliability of his characters. The plot is simple: Two boys, the book’s nameless narrator and his disturbed friend Seán, witness a murder. Or do they? Carefully unspooled over the course of this highly readable novel, that uncertainty threatens to tear their lives apart.

One of the book’s great achievements is how Murphy grounds his protagonists with a recognisable adolescence of the type which brackets the Celtic Tiger years.

Combined with a realistic texture of small town characters and experiences, the result is a convincing, occasionally unnerving exploration of how easily teenagers can slip through the net and, worse, lose credibility in the eyes of the adult world.

Seán, an un-gentle giant, is an affecting portrait of someone who “is not a well person”. Counselled and medicated, his predilection for cruelty is balanced by his constant struggle to ignore his violent urges. The resulting tension is echoed by the manner in which he is treated. The narrator, himself barely more than a child, seeks to protect and understand his friend whereas the grown-up representatives, the local teachers, gardaí, and doctors, just want him to stop causing them trouble.

Indeed, before too long it is Seán’s GP, Dr Thorpe, who emerges as the ostensible antagonist. A quietly sinister figure, Thorpe lies not only at the heart of the crime the boys may have witnessed, he serves to embody the book’s profound scepticism about the careless manner in which society treats its problematic members.

Murphy’s previous novel, 1798: Tomorrow the Barrow We’ll Cross, was a solid, heavily-researched historically, but Dead Dogs is altogether different. It is built not on big events but on what goes on within the heads of individuals. Though the author, to his credit, makes the unpredictable Seán a sympathetic figure, the air of menace which surrounds the boy seeps into all aspects of the story.

More than a straightforward mystery so, Murphy’s novel interrogates — in an almost accidental fashion — the processes whereby damaging revelations are received and too often denied by provincial Irish mindsets. Though the idiosyncrasies of his narrator and the character’s position of powerlessness add wrinkles to such an analogy, it is difficult to deny that Dead Dogs serves up a critique of accountability, a riff on the corruptibility of those we trust to protect us, as well as a comment on the fluid nature of truth itself.

Well worth a read.

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