First glimpse into a brand new novel
Thomas Adcock, author of the Neil Hockaday novels is back in all the old glory
The hero of Thomas Adcock’s „Painted Devils“ is a world-weary New Yorker by the name of Matty O’Neill, who describes „the markers of my previous lives“ as „U.S. Army war criminal, a red-headed boxer called Rusty O’Neill, a boozer, a policeman, a crime reporter [and] all too briefly, a husband.“ We follow Matty’s painful remembrances of growing up in an immigrant household full of resentments—and unspoken mysteries—against the backdrop of three murders. The victims: Matty’s best friend from boyhood and mentor in the New York Police Department; his mentor’s widow, whom Matty himself married; and the editor who hired him to report on crime. Throughout the story, there emerges a little known dark side to the American national pastime—the game of baseball. With the considerable help of a lovely woman pathologist, and an itinerant newspaper colleague, Matty makes sense of an Irish enclave in rural upstate New York—far from what he’s known of life as a „city hike“ in Manhattan. The novel’s title is taken from an aphorism by the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan: „It is the eye of childhood that fears the painted devils.“
“Why come to me?” asked the big man.
“You know why,” said his visitor.
The big man offered no response, neither by word nor facial expression. Inscrutability was his personal nature, and useful on the job.
After a beat, the visitor asked, “You do recall our discussions, do you not?”
“I remember we spoke.”
“You know all the parties involved, or at least of them——”
The visitor ignored the taunt. “I suspect you know the underlying history as well,” he said, “and that you have suspicions of your own.”
The big man turned and stared out the window. It seemed as if he might say something, but awkward seconds that passed put an end to that.
“A normal person would say, ‘What history?’”
“I’m abnormal to you?”
“Cut the clowning,” said the visitor. “I don’t like coming here, but I did. Anyhow, let’s start with this: You know me, and you know what my family line connects to.”
“Family. Now there’s an unpleasant subject.”
“Ever hear of an Englishman by the name of Crisp?”
“He says one’s loved ones ought rightly be called one’s loathed ones.” The visitor thought for a moment. Then, smiling, he added, “On the other hand, family can’t be too awful if it comes with apple pie and a white picket fence.”
“Should you fall on top, a picket fence could kill you.”
A dead ringer! Late wife provides rural
retreat. Brooders of the Liffey Lounge.
Horse-loads of graveyard clay. Trespass.
That morning, I found a finger.
A cursory review of the crime scene——if a picnic table in the shade of a sycamore tree may be called a crime scene——revealed the severed digit as the former left-hand appendage of a presumably married Caucasian gentleman of a certain age with no need of scrubbing down after a day’s work, if he worked.
This much I logically deduced from initial indicators: wrinkly knuckles gone salt-and-pepper hairy, pink skin, well-kept nails (by the local standard), and a pale groove encircling the fourth finger——the mark of a ring tightened by decades of wedded bliss, or misery, or the usual blend.
The telltale groove was a few centimeters above the point where it had been hacked away from the palm. Judging by the fat dent atop the picnic table, the whacking was accomplished by hatchet.
The ring itself had gone missing. Which could mean that the dearly departed had recently split with his missus for some reason or other, and therefore removed the symbol of love and devotion under his own steam. Or, on the reasonable hunch that a man minus a wedding band no longer walked among us, an assailant filched the ring in a pre-amputative moment, with intent to sell it to one of those outfits that advertise on TV how they’ll pay spot cash for “old or unwanted” gold.
So there lay a naked dead finger on the cedar slats of a picnic table in the shade of the barn. The place where I’ve had my coffee and buttered bun and read the morning newspapers on clement days since around the first of May, which is when I acquired what I grandly call The Farm.
Ryan said the country quietude would do me good. But now comes Thursday morning last, and with it a blooded finger. So what does Ryan know?
Kevin Ryan: He’s the one responsible for my rural exile; he’s the one who steered me to a country realtor flogging an “old-time charmer/weekend retreat/needs TLC,” available in my late wife’s girlhood home, namely the village of Chatford in the wilds of upstate New York.
Ryan suggested the location was mere coincidence. So indeed, what does he know? Whatever…
Chatford seemed as good a burg as any to establish a new life. Accordingly, I secured The Farm with what I collected as sole beneficiary under the “untimely death” clause in my wife’s life insurance policy. Not that you should get ideas about the windfall, or the passing of my bride.
More about her later. More on Ryan, too.
Anyhow, I had a plan for my Chatford decampment. I would bask in luxury, which by my lights are three things: a couch, a book, and coffee. When not reading, I would study practical skills such as carpentry and plumbing and gardening. Just the sort of leisure schedule to complement a transformation from city hike——Daddo’s expression——to country squire.
But that Thursday was no morning of a well-earned peace in the autumn of my life. Not with a nameless finger as rude herald of all that would come to pass.
And not with one of dead-and-gone Daddo’s many aphorisms soon to move from the back to the front of my mind: When Irish eyes are smiling, watch your step.
Allow me to introduce myself: Maitiú Aloysius O’Neill. The Christian name is Irish for Matthew. Most call me Matty.
As the first of us O’Neills born in New York, my earliest home was two rooms six flights upstairs of an Isham Street tenement house in Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan. In younger days, the neighborhood was mostly an enclave of strivers fled from down-on-its-luck Ireland. A doctor near retirement age by the name of Braunstein brought me into this world, right there in the kitchen, near a sink full of warm water. After which, Doc Braunstein came around most days over the next three weeks to look in on my mother, Fiona.
Poor Fiona. I was a ten-pound birth. She herself weighed in at barely past one hundred.
Mam and my father, Pádraig, were childhood sweethearts on the other side, each so thin it pains me to look at their wedding portrait. Fiona cleaned offices at the Bell Telephone Company. Pádraig took whatever job of work there was to be scrounged.
But in a curiously short time, Pádraig O’Neill secured a lease to a storefront at Broadway and West 204thStreet. He made over the location, and himself, as pub and publican. Mam no longer had to work, not that she was physically capable of scrub jobs for much longer; Doc Braunstein warned that her swollen knees could lead to something more serious than aches and pains.
How an emaciated greenhorn such as Daddo obtained a liquor license and the wherewithal to establish a pub and equip the place with brass and mahogany and a Rock-Ola jukebox and a fine stock of booze was a matter of circumstance not detailed in family discussion. Mam simply explained our providence as “the miracle of this pleasant land, America.” By some early instinctive realization, I knew to leave it at that, to accept only partial stories about my parents’ lives. A great irony that, given what I was to become as a grown man.
“A miracle indeed to be scramblin’ for wages in New York, then soon to be master of your fate!” Fiona exclaimed many times. She added, as she turned from the question mark of my face, as if she could not bear the lie, “Oh, this grand metropolis is sweet for us, Matty boyo.”
Neither Pádraig nor Fiona had ever lain eyes on the Atlantic until they walked from Ballinasloe to the docks at Galway Bay with moony notions of a better life across the great grey sea, with little more in their pockets than the price of steerage and squares of soda bread wrapped in paraffin paper. Along the way, they trod barefoot through the meadows between villages in order to preserve the fading life of their crumbling shoes.
Mam and Daddo spoke often, and angrily, of how it was for earlier generations of their kind. They called such talk “bitter remembrance,” and said it was an Irish inheritance bred in the bone——an emotional prison from which they determined to set me free.
They spoke, Mam and Daddo, of Hibernian peasants kidnapped in the seventeenth century by English traffickers who amassed great fortunes in supplying first the Dutch patroons of New Amsterdam with human donkey labor, then two centuries later the Brits of renamed New York. They spoke of the Great Hunger in Eire, the crime of An Gorta Mór: of farms dying out and thousands starving, of so many walking dead, of indentured servitude the only option for croppers of their kind.
In the little parlor of our Inwood home, Mam and Daddo and their Irisher comrades discussed these horrors late at night and into the tiny hours, believing I was asleep and unhearing in my kitchen bunk. I remember the others as comradesbecause they seemed more soldiers than guests.
Sometimes of those evenings I was not so innocently off in the land of boy-dreams. It only looked that way to an adult person who’d drunk many jars before peeping at a shut-eyed child tucked beneath a blanket. I heard the muffled talk, though I was not old enough for full understanding. But I do recall a sense that I ought not become familiar with the hatreds smoldering beneath the talk.
In Daddo’s pub, hateful talk was neither muffled nor concealed.
It was the first I’d heard the term. I was a skinny lad brooming the floor of Daddo’s pub, this being among my Saturday chores. Daddo was speaking not to me but to a resentful huddle of brooding Irishers at a table to the side of the bar. Daddo spat his words, as if what happened centuries ago was all last week’s wickedness.
“——‘Tis a pretty way of sayin’ slave is what that is. Indentured servants! Never forget, slaves is what we was to them fat Dutchmen and them feckin’ Brits. Aye, to them we was valued less than tools in the scioból.”
“Don’t you know how they worked us harps so cruel-like?” said Daddo, his tirade as quenching to the brooders as whiskey. “The feckers, they’d cut us sticks from thorny trees to dig out rocks the size of cannon shot from the stinkin’ stony soil.
“A right shovel was too good for us Irish slaves. Our hands run bloody and bruised, I tell you. The only way we had for keepin’ our minds off the agony, and keepin’ our human sanity, was dreamin’ up curses to hurl upon the feckin’ oppressors.“
He would then commence reciting the classics, coined by others before his time.
“Six horse-loads of graveyard clay atop of you!”
“May you be afflicted with the itch and have no nails to scratch!”
“May the Devil swallow you sideways!”
“All calamity and harm to you for a year before Satan roasts the banger and baubles clear from your crotch!”
Finally, the curse of Daddo’s own proud invention:
“May your obituary be written in weasel piss!”
As the days and weeks wore on in Chatford, the discovery of the finger pointed to complexities of my life I had long ago banished to neglect, or consigned to the myths of ancient troubles on foreign land. For as much as I’d been anticipating good books and palaver with the picaresque characters of my dead wife’s hometown, as much as I had adjusted to the idea of a languid future, the finger snatched me back to a past I stupidly believed had passed.
For here was I now——come to grips with the markers of my previous lives: I had been a U.S. Army murderer, a red-headed boxer called Rusty O’Neill, a boozer, a policeman, a crime reporter. And all too briefly, a husband.
- Published with friendly permission – taken from Thomas Adcock’s brandnew novel „Painted Devils“.
Thomas Adcock is CulturMag’s U.S. correspondent and the author of the Neil Hockaday novels. He is the Guest of Honor at KrimisMachen 4, Germany’s most important gathering of crime writing shakers and makers and critics taking place in Cologne end of September.
Thomas Adcock’s essays with CrimeMag here.