Unlike apparently everyone else on the internet, I’d never heard of Graham Norton before I picked up Holding. Apparently he’s some sort of comedian, and not really the type you would expect to write a small-town cozy. But Holding is a small-town cozy if ever there was one, and the incongruity of the genre and author is featued in every review I’ve read. Positively – because I guess if someone writes something you don’t expect them to write, it’s reasonable to take that as evidence of versatility.
But what if the "versatile" work is dead conventional?
OK, Holding isn’t that, exactly. But I still would like someone to tell me what Norton’s bringing to the table that we couldn’t have gotten from anyone else. It just doesn’t seem entirely fair that someone gets credit for originality for writing something that would go unnoticed if he’d had a name that was straight-up English and feminine.
Put it this way – do you ever get the feeling that something’s written to anticipate the critics? It seems to happen a lot in television and movies. Someone will pick a genre, purport to be producing a faithful example of that genre, but it will be obvious throughout that they’ve been listening to the highbrows’ hobby horse complaints about it. That’s kind of what this feels like.
The action, such as it is, takes place in an extremely sleepy Irish village in County Cork which has as good as never had a crime. Sgt. PJ Collins is the only policeman in town, and his job is basically to drive drunks to the drunk tank and occasionally direct traffic at events. There is much excitement, then, when a skeleton is unearthed during construction of a new housing development. But no one in town, least of all Collins himself, thinks he’s really up to the job of investigating it.
Collins is maybe the one halfway original thing in the book. He’s obese and has a lot of social anxiety – and it’s a bit of a chicken-egg problem which caused the other. He’s not exactly a 40-year-old virgin, but he’s never had a girlfriend, and he doesn’t seem to have any platonic friends either. He’s conscientious and wants to do a good job, but in the absense of real challenges he has no impetus to hone his detective skills, and so he mostly spends his time enjoying food that various locals give him. That slowly changes as the case gets underway. Originally caught flat-footed by Linus Dunne – a workaholic, acerbic Garda sent in from Cork to supervise the case – Collins is determined to prove himself to Dunne, and Dunne, in turn, recognizes and comes to appreciate his eagerness. Perhaps because of this newfound work ethic, or perhaps because of the status working on the Only Interesting Thing in Town in Three Decades, the perennially celibate Collins finds women showing interest in him for the first time in his life – only they’re unfortunately all suspects, so he’s initially hesitant to reciprocate. The nice thing about the way this is all handled is that Collins is never an object of ridicule. Norton isn’t showing us a loser. Rather, he’s showing us someone who might’ve been successful, if someone had ever lit a real fire under his ass. Collins is basically none of the detective genre stereotypes: neither a bumbling detective, nor an eccentric genius, nor a world-weary and street smart wiseguy. Nor, for that matter, is he anything special at his job. He mishandles interviews, misses important clues and often fails to read people (nearlly fatally, in the novel’s climax, when he walks right into a trap the reader spots immediately). Collins isn’t exactly ordinary, but he’s very far from extraordinary.
Other than Collins, the main players in the story are the two women he’s ambiguously involved with. One of them, Brid Riordan, was once engaged to the man the skeleton is believed to have once been, and the other, Evelyn Ross, was deeply in love with him. The man himself – Tommy Burke – disappeared mysteriously just after his engagement and may or may not have been murdered. So, the book angles itself as a whichunizit, but it never fully commits to the premise, and we meet a host of secondary characters who might also be involved (indeed, at one point Colins suspects the whole town knows what happened and he is the victim of a conspiracy of silence).
It’s this array of minor characters that just don’t come across as interesting as advertised. Norton seems to think he’s giving us a bunch of well-drawn, believable characters – and give the man credit, he seems to have done a good job convincing a lot of critics of the same – but in reality they’re pretty flat. He gets as far as making them distinct, but distinctiveness alone isn’t depth, and I never get the feeling I know these people all that well. Characters are well-drawn when they do things that you don’t expect but completely understand. Nothing like that ever happens here. These characters all do exactly what you’d expect, and it’s always directly in the service of the plot.
And yes, then there’s the plot. It’s not without problems of its own.
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
I’m down with the hip modern mystery that turns out to be not a mystery, much less one solved by the detective. This book pulls that trick. It sets itself up as a whodunnit that might just be a whichunizit – but the banal answer is "no one dunnit" because the skeleton wasn’t actually a murder victim. After some cheap misdirection about who the skeleton is (it might or might not be Tommy Burke – at first it isn’t, but finally it is), Collins accidentally stumbles upon the "murderer," who, it turns out, is at best guilty of obstructing justice. Tommy Burke died in a tractor accident – albeit one caused by the murderer distracting him by confronting him about some of his poor life choices. So, it’s not a murder, but it is at least a semi-intentional death? I dunno, it’s all very hip. And to make matters worse, Collins not only doesn’t solve the crime himself (he’s just bringing the "murderer" in for questioning, not actually pursuing an arrest when he gets the confession), he steps right into a trap that’s crazy obvious to the reader. I guess because Norton recognized that the book lacked any kind of tension up to this point, we get a ridiculous scene where the "murderer," having copped to suffering from a deus ex machina terminal condition, decides to drive Collins off a cliff and into the ocean for no reason. Collins escapes, of course – possibly/probably because the "murderer" isn’t really committed to killing him – but there’s just no real motive for it.
So, it’s a detective novel in which the detective didn’t really solve the murder that wasn’t really a murder.
It’s a little puzzling why this is so annoying here. Colin Dexter pulled off the "solved entirely too late and completely by accident" trick well, repeatedly, and decades ago – and I (and everyone else) let Arnaldur Indrithasson off the hook for non-murder murder mysteries all the time. Done right, the mystery-that-isn’t-actually can be really satisfying. I don’t know why it’s so annoying here, but it really is. Maybe because it allows the town to continue to be essentially crime-free?
That is actually a problem for this book, because when you stop to think about theme, you notice that the novel has a central Source of Misery, and that’s choosing social convention over personal desire. Tommy Burke dies because he chose the girl with the farm rather than the girl he wanted. Brid Riordan is miserable because she used her farm rather than her self to find happiness. Evelyn Ross is trapped by what she called an extended "politeness" into a meaningless life caring for sisters who don’t actually need her care. And, if you want to stretch this as far as it will go, Collins himself is only afforded the opportunity to be ordinary because he’s policing a town that doesn’t need a policeman, and only has one because the law says it should have one. That’s fine as far as it goes, but if you’re going to set up "social convention" in a village setting as the villain, it complicates things when your major crime turns out to be a misunderstood minor crime and thus draws attention to the benefits of a life under village social conventions. It’s only in places like Cork that murders happen. Here in Duneen, they don’t, and that’s not worth nothing! Nor does the message seem to be one of endorsing the tradeoff of some murders here and there for generally more fulfilling lives, as the book seems to be pro-Duneen and anti-Cork.
What it actually is, of course, is pro-caring and anti-indifference, which is to say it’s about nothing. We all prefer caring to indifference (at least most of the time), and we’d like to live in Norton’s fantasy of a Duneen without stifling conventions. But that’s not substantively different from saying we’d all like our lives to be good and not bad, and the whole arc of human history is bending toward that, but it’s a hard problem to solve while resources are scarce, and, well, long-story-short, we haven’t solved it yet. So, your choices are still Cork with its crime and indifference, or Duneen with its caring and stifling conventions, and there isn’t a way to have the best of both worlds. Interesting is when you write a book that meditates on the tradeoffs and on why the world can’t be perfect, even though it wants to be. Boring is what this book does – by just sketching out the fantasy of what "perfect" would look like.
It doesn’t help that the book is vaguely anti-male. In addition to convention, men specifically are the source of all the problems. The ur-problem, of course, is when Ms. Meany is raped and impregnated as a young girl by a man who feels entitled to her body for giving her a lift. And why? Because he’s in a band, and women come to cheer on men in bands without asking for anything in return. The original sin is intimacy without caring, and it’s born when people glorify male-ness rather than the individual man. And so it goes all the way down the line. The book doesn’t reserve much blame for characters who are miserable through inaction – which is all the women plus (arguably) PJ Collins. But there is plenty of implicit blame for men like Tommy Burke who make the choices. A more interesting book would’ve found some sensitivity for the fact that Tommy has to make a choice even though he doesn’t have any good options, but this isn’t that book.
This book is good, but it’s overrated. The characters aren’t really sensitively drawn. The plot isn’t actually inventive. The supposedly insightful social commentary isn’t actually insightful. And while the writing is good, it’s not really special. The one thing this book has going for it is PJ Collins, who actually does represent a new approach to the mystery novel detective. I’m not sure it’s enough to prop up the rest of it.
Mileage will vary, of course. For me, this just felt kind of empty.
Overall Rating C+