COLIN BATEMAN’s Divorcing Jack (1994) is one of the most influential books in Irish crime fiction, and Bateman has written more than 30 novels since, all of them crime or mysteries to varying degrees.
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Paper Cuts, his first non-crime novel, opens with the Guardian journalist Rob Cullen arriving back in Bangor to attend the funeral of his old mentor, Billy Maxwell, the former editor of the (fictional) Bangor Express.
One rip-roaring wake later, Rob finds himself working as temporary editor of the Express, with a brief to modernise, streamline and rejuvenate the ailing paper.
Told in eight chapters, each corresponding to a week’s edition of the Express (and each representing a crisis/opportunity for the Express and its staff), Paper Cuts is a charming account of the qualified joys of local journalism.
Bateman, who left school aged 16 to take up a position as cub reporter with the County Down Spectator, appears to share Rob Cullen’s reluctant appreciation of local newspapers. They might be, as Rob suggests, ‘like community goldfish bowls.
The same stories kept coming around, year after year after decade,’ but Rob also believes the Express has a duty of care to its readership: ‘It serves the community, it protects the community, it tells you who the bad guys are and stops them getting away with it.’
If Rob believes he has taken on a noble task, however, his idealism is rather undercut when Alix, the main reporter amid the demoralised staff, prosaically describes the Express as ‘a dysfunctional family. A dysfunctional, highly unpopular and poverty-stricken family.’
The clash between the staff’s cynical pragmatism and Rob’s principled theories of journalism provides the story with its narrative tension, as Rob learns to accept his own limitations along with those of his co-workers and his new home.
Bangor is a sleepy, peaceful seaside town. “One of those towns that had escaped the worst and even the least of the Troubles. Three bombs in thirty years, a handful of shootings; hell, there were towns in Surrey that had had it worse, nearly.”
Given the nature of local reporting, there are enough crime-based stories in Paper Cuts to fuel a modest crime fiction career, as Rob and his team find themselves investigating ex-paramilitaries, sex traffickers, bodies dumped in fly-tipping sites, mysterious arsons, the exploitation of refugees, and even a siege when an armed robber botches his heist of the post office.
The story is peppered with Bateman’s blackly comic asides, as when Alix reflects on how boring her job is. “Of course, there hadn’t been a lot of decapitated heads during her time on the Express. That was wishful thinking,’ she concludes.”
There’s a sly humour, too, in the way the apparently explosive crime stories the reporters investigate rarely turn out to be what they appear at first glance; Bateman takes us behind the lurid headlines to explore the human impact of local journalism (and, in the process, turn the traditional narrative of crime fiction on its head), as villains turn out to be heroes, and victims are revealed to be nowhere as powerless as they might seem.
Paper Cuts may be the first non-crime novel Bateman has written, but it’s the latest example of a writer who has been taking artistic gambles for some time now.
Long one of Ireland’s most prolific and influential authors, Paper Cuts is further confirmation that Colin Bateman is becoming one of our most ambitious writers too. Deliciously readable.
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