The Red Hand of Ulster by Sam Millar from Requiems for the Departed – review

October 1, 2010
By

requiem for the departedReviewed by Chris F. Holm

Of all the bloody scenes in Ireland’s past, none was as personal as The Red Hand of Ulster when the High King, O’Neill, and a man named Dermott both wished to be king of that coveted piece of Ireland. The High King suggested a horse race, and first to touch the land would become the winner and sole owner of Ulster. As the two came in sight of the ending point, it seemed that Dermott would win, so O’Neill cut his hand off and threw it. It reached the goal ahead of Dermott’s horse, winning for O’Neill the crown of Ulster.

For me, this was the perfect background for Belfast PI, Karl Kane, when he went in search of the elusive Red Hand of Ulster serial killer. I enjoyed the story so much I decided to expand it into a full length novel in the Karl Kane series, due for 2011.

Sam Millar

Of all the bloody scenes in Ireland’s past, none was as personal as The Red Hand of Ulster when the High King, O’Neill, and a man named Dermott both wished to be king of that coveted piece of Ireland. The High King suggested a horse race, and first to touch the land would become the winner and sole owner of Ulster. As the two came in sight of the ending point, it seemed that Dermott would win, so O’Neill cut his hand off and threw it. It reached the goal ahead of Dermott’s horse, winning for O’Neill the crown of Ulster.

So goes legend that inspired Sam Millar’s “The Red Hand of Ulster,” in which Belfast PI Karl Kane stumbles across a severed hand – the third such grisly discovery on the streets of Ulster in two months – and winds up on the trail of a serial killer. Kane, of course, would tell you his hunt is spurred on by the reward offered by a local businessman for any information leading to the killer’s apprehension, but not a fan of PI novels alive would buy it. Millar deftly employs the tropes of the genre to paint Kane as what Chandler might’ve called a weathered man of honor – one who, given the opportunity to bilk a client desperate to find her missing uncle, instead informs her that her uncle is unlikely to be found, and refuses payment until he can do a little digging first. And dig he does, until he finds himself in a hole so deep he’s unlikely to get out alive.

The setup, I confess, felt a tad traditional to me, and as my first exposure to Millar’s series character Kane, I was initially put off by his jarring airiness in the face of bleak circumstances; he seemed to lack the depth – the pathos – expected of a modern PI. But Kane, much like the story itself, was far more nuanced than he at first appeared. Millar skillfully lures the reader into a sense of seen-it complacency, your basic PI on the hunt of a run-of-the-mill serial killer, and then delivers anything but. The shades of gray he paints with by story’s end are less Chandler’s and more those employed by another Millar – Kenneth – who, writing as Ross Macdonald, plumbed the psychology of victimhood and revenge to create the sort of gnawing, bitter denouements that, once read, were hard to shake. But where Macdonald predominantly dealt with the consequences of familial violence, “The Red Hand of Ulster” concerns itself with the corrosive effect a violent past can have on a culture’s – not to mention his main character’s – present. I’ll tell you, this may have been the first Karl Kane story I’ve read, but it damn sure won’t be the last.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

More Posts - Website - Twitter

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.