Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Review: Games of the Hangman by Victor O'Reilly


Former soldier, now war photographer, Hugo Fitzduane discovers a body hanging from a tree on his remote Scottish Island.  What is initially thought to be a suicide of a student from a nearby exclusive school, turns out to be something much more sinister, leading Fitzduane away from his idyllic hideaway into the clutches of an international terrorist and all-round bad guy known simply as the Hangman.


Games of the Hangman is the debut novel by Victor O'Reilly, first published in 1992.  It's an interesting first book, as exciting and thrilling as it is gruesome and there is also a very dry, macabre sense of humour running throughout.  Fitzduane, the hero, can't seem to turn his back on the horrors of the battlefield except during his downtime which he spends at his windswept castle, atop a sheer cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  The intrusion of the dead student into his solace affects Hugo more than any dead body he's seen while carrying out his profession, and it's that intimate location which propels his curiosity into places it shouldn't be.  Looking to banish demons from his own past, Fitzduane's determinedness to get to the bottom of the mystery also proves his undoing.

Hugo's amateurish investigations take him to Switzerland where O'Reilly pokes gentle, affectionate fun at the Swiss culture and people.  By stripping away the veneer of respectable politeness, he uncovers a simmering resentment of the ordered establishment that is the Swiss Republic.  The author seemed determined to look beneath the surface of one of the so-called best places to live in the World, and in doing so, stumbles across a veritable den of iniquity.  I'm sure Bern is no different to any other city in that regard.

The Hangman himself is a gloriously malevolent creation.  A by-product of the corrupt Batista-era of Cuba, he is a supreme manipulator of people either by force of character, by taking advantage of their lusty desires or by sheer nastiness alone.  His motives are pure, his methods are not but why is he linked to the apparent suicide of a wealthy student at a remote, privileged school?  How is a high-ranking, respected Swiss family involved and why is there a mans head on a giant chessboard?

The book smoulders along, spiked with moments of audacitous grisly murder, fetishistic sexual encounters and yes, even laughter, eventually building to a fabulously over-the-top finale.  It's no less believable or enjoyable because of that but there is a certain amount of belief suspension to be employed.  It does drag in the odd place and while being quite filmable, I can imagine a few scenes ending on the cutting room floor.  The characters are well-drawn with faults and foibles, nuerosis, sexual, murderous or otherwise.  Dialogue is natural and fluid and underpinned by that wicked and slightly warped sense of humour.

The plot twists and turns and while certain mechanics are obvious, such as the tried-and-tested ex-soldier knowing every weapon in the world, the true nature of the story never reveals itself until the last moment.  Switzerland comes across as much more exciting than it appears and in his foreword, O'Reilly acknowledges the surprise of this while researching the novel.  The fun-poking doesn't stop at the Swiss with the authors native Ireland also coming in for a bit of fond and cheeky ribbing.

The story has a convincing arc, as fanciful as it is, and it's a very readable and immersive book.  It's easy to find oneself being drawn in while the dishes wait to be washed, kids wait to be fed and dogs wee on the hallway carpet.  If you don't mind living in squalor, it comes highly recommended.

497 pages.
Published by Berkley.
Released in 1992.
ISBN: 978-0425134566

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