reviewed by Nigel Bird
I first heard about Cuchulainn growing up in Galway in the 1980s and the tales have stayed with me to this day; that’s why I chose to write about him. That and the fact that I like getting dogs into stories … dogs in crime fiction rule!
From the anthology ‘Requiems For The Departed’ by Morrigan Books Tony Black prefaces his story with a nod to the inspiration behind it. He cites the mythological tales of Cochulainn as its root, tales which he grew up with in his early years.
Cochulainn can be translated from the Irish into Cullan’s Hound (aka The Hound Of Ulster).
The dog is said to have been slain by a young boy, Setanta. When challenged about his deed he offered to take the dog’s place as guard for Culann and his fort, a job which he took on with zest.
As a young man, he was to save the whole of Ulster single-handedly during the ‘Cattle Raid of Colley’.
It had been prophesied that Setanta would perform great deeds though his life would be short, a perfect model for a hero in a crime-story such as this.
In ‘Hound Of Culann’, Black does an excellent job of placing the tale in a contemporary setting.
We meet our modern-day Setanta, Quinn, in a bar. It’s sparsely described, yet the picture is vivid, the kind of place you’ll see in many parts of Ireland, drinking men passing the time between one morning and the next.
What you won’t find in too many places are characters like Quinn or the man he’s due to meet.
Quinn fits the bill perfectly for a hard-biting tale such as this. He’s tough and he’s been around the block. Life may be settling down for him, but he can’t help being attracted by the lure of riches and of danger. We know it’ll be his downfall one day; what we don’t know is if this is the day in question.
Cullan’s heavy, keen to talk with Quinn, is beautifully drawn. A real piece of muscle in the tradition of crime stories. As if the size of the man were not enough, he has a Webley tucked into his waist band. Not even Quinn is going to go up against him with his fists or a gun, so he has to use his wits instead.
Quinn knows what the man wants and also knows that he doesn’t have it, not with him at any rate. And there’s the rub.
From the myth, you might guess that what Quinn has is Culanne’s dog, a real fighting beast upon which a lot depends. Cullan has set up a fight, ‘the fecken fight of the century’, and he’ll go to any lengths to get it back, desperate man that he is. He’s the kind who doesn’t want ‘the troubles’ to end and likes to show off his reputation.
The build up to the confrontation is skilfully handled. Keeps the reader fully engaged and moving on at pace.
What happens, you’ll have to find out for yourself and I recommend that you do.
Black is well named. There is darkness in the world he presents us with here and in the characters we find within. It’s the kind of place I wouldn’t like to stumble into without a torch, bodyguard and a couple of revolvers. Come to think of it, a genie in a lamp might be pretty useful.
It’s pared down to a minimum, like a car about to race or a boxer facing the scales before a bout. The images are sharp, the prose clean and the scenes and players are described fully with minimal effort and word-count.
At the same time the voice of the story, Quinn’s own, has a lyrical quality. He has a lovely devil-may-care attitude to life, knows his flaws and is prepared to enjoy them. Even as he finds himself in ever-increasing difficulty, I could imagine a sparkle in his eyes the whole way through, possibly the hint of a smile on his mouth. It’s as if he’s casually retelling things to a group of men with nothing better to do than listen as they lean against the bar nursing their pints and whiskey.
This piece has everything I need from a short-story and more. It’s the kind of writing I can only aspire to just now. If I ever