In a slow burn of a novel, Michael Forsythe has already run out of time in his native Ireland and in the British Army before his twentieth birthday. With no other option, he goes to America to work for "Darkey" White, one of the gang lords taking over Harlem in the vacuum caused by the authorities' clean-up of the Mafia in the early 1990s. Michael is wise beyond his years, coldly ambitious, and ruthless to the point of psychopathy, being the only one of the organisation's foot-soldiers who can efficiently administer a "Belfast six-pack" to a fellow thug, even though he realises that the man is probably innocent. It isn't long before Michael's self-confidence goes a step too far, and he's having an affair with Darkey's woman Bridget as well as taking part in operations "off the books".
Up to this point, I was finding this well-written story uninvolving, because I had little sympathy with Michael or any of the other characters. I could admire the excellent writing and the wonderful evocation of atmosphere and gangland ambience, but at the end of the day I'm not that interested in reading about endless shoot-outs, drug dealing, fights and people getting drunk on a road to lawless ruin or rule – however well-put, it is hardly original.
I'm glad I persevered, though, because when Michael and his associates are sent to Mexico, the book shifts to another dimension. The events that follow an attempted drug deal are shattering, and move the book into a post-Godfather odyssey which is conveyed with real pace.
Looking back on the book after finishing it, the character of Michael isn't that convincing. Although he is only nineteen for most of the novel, he's fearsomely well read and has a maturity of inner judgement that belies his actions. Although he has had few choices in his short life, he certainly has opportunities to change, notably in the post-Mexico sequence, but takes none of them seriously in his desire for revenge and to become top of some gangland empire of his imagination. Even when he is helped by some Dominicans, he rejects Ramon, their leader, who offers him the possibility of friendship and collaboration. Michael remains true to his noir straitjacket and prefers to treat the relationship purely in terms of a means to an end – an end that is useful to both parties as well as a way to keep the plot going when Michael has run out of options.
The coda shows that there can be no upbeat solution for this cold anti-hero, whose main goal in life can only be survival, due to the choices he's made and the actions he's taken. Most of the other characters in the book don't feature sufficiently to make too much of an impression, but Bridget is singularly inconsistent. Her outcome is, frankly, unbelievable in the context of the universe of this novel – if intriguing from the point of view of future plot developments.