Newspaper reporter Sam Briscoe passes by Ireland en route to Switzerland to see his daughter, interviews an IRA leader for a quick St. Patrick’s Day piece, and agrees to pass a sealed envelope on to a barkeeper back in New York. Only, as the bar erupts minutes after he leaves, Briscoe finds that his life, and the life of his daughter, may indeed be in jeopardy. Following this is a rough-and-tumble chase through New York to uncover the truth, and save Briscoe’s daughter from harm, before these mystery bombers can finish whatever they’re doing.
To be honest, this piece had a fairly slow start, and didn’t really get off the ground until Briscoe returned to New York, despite some creepy stalkers following him and his girl in the Swiss alps. The setting to this one interested me most: Ireland and New York have such strong texture, and even Switzerland feels has character… albeit not as much as the Big Apple or Belfast. (Little surprise; Hamill is a New Yorker who uses New York as the setting in his novels.) Hamill has a definite gift with his narration, which made up for the slow start, at least making things interesting. After the novel gets going, it gets going; Briscoe is quickly enmeshed in the plots, and there’s quite a bit at stake.
Reprinted in the post-9/11 world, a potential terrorist attack in New York no longer has the same fictional quality it did in ages past. That benchmark of harsh reality is a horror no novel can surpass. Still, Guns of Heaven read more like an old action movie with its setup: an unholy alliance between American conservative TV televangelists and Irish terrorists, ripped from the headlines and shoved rudely into a crime novel. Pure reflections of the ’80s, when fundamentalist televangelists were using cutting-edge, and when “The Troubles” in Ireland dominated headlines with violent flare-ups. Now that both have receded, the novel reads more like a period piece than anything else; it’s hard to relate to this bleak 1983 here in the 21st century.
The dated, time-capsule feel was something I ended up liking; it’s a good history lesson thriller, hot-button issues tied to a page-turning crime novel. Hamill’s gifted with strong prose, making up a nice hardboiled thriller; his dialogue is sharp, reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s snappy exchanges and witty retorts. I felt the connections between the IRA camp and their allies in America was muddled and needed clarity, and it took a long time—almost forever—to get moving. Hamill’s a great writer, at least, and his prose kept drawing me on; eventually I found an exciting page-turner in the second act, and dove into that in a few nights. Despite its small flaws, the book was enjoyable and a good, quick read.
I don’t know how I managed to keep these reviews as short as I did, given my natural predilection for the verbose, thus I expanded it out with a few paragraphs. In any event I still like this book, and remember a lot about it, including several tense set-pieces. Not the greatest in the Hard Case lineup, but a strong contender; I might re-read it in a few years to see how well Hamill’s prose stands up. It’s a book worth picking up, that’s for sure.
Pete Hamill wrote three novels starring Briscoe: Dirty Laundry (1978), The Deadly Piece (1979), and The Guns of Heaven (1983). So, there’s some more books I should track down. Hamill returned to the character in his 2011 thriller Tabloid City, throwing him in as one of the many characters populating the novel. Coming from a journalism background himself, Hamill’s focus on hard-bitten newspaper men makes sense.
A few weeks after I read and posted the review (back in ’09), I ended up tagging along to some flea market/antique mall thing. Down in the mildewed basement, I found a rack of old paperbacks, some with cool covers, most I’d never heard of, all overpriced. One of them was The Guns of Heaven, and I got a kick out of that. The Hard Case cover was head and shoulders superior.