Hard Case Crime 9/06: The Guns of Heaven by Pete Hamill (#24)



On a visit to Northern Ireland, newspaper reporter Sam Briscoe meets with a mysterious IRA leader and agrees to deliver an envelope to his supporters in New York City. It’s a decision with grave consequences-not just for Briscoe, but for his 11-year-old daughter as well. Because the bloody Irish conflict is about to come to the streets of New York, and Briscoe is the only man standing in its way…

What an odd book this is.

The main character is Sam Briscoe, a big-shot reporter, Irish Republican Army sympathizer, leftist (although generally not radically so), and deep despiser of religion and religious believers unless that believer is a harmless rube like an Irish housewife with six kids.

The Guns of Heaven opens in Ireland, and its first third is more like an espionage novel than what you would expect from Hard Case Crime, with Briscoe hopping to Sweden and then to New York City. Once Briscoe returns to New York, though, it becomes more typical of the genre, with Briscoe journeying through the American Irish underground and the pubs where that underground congregates, trying to figure out who is crossing who and racing against time to save the lives of the innocent.

We don’t get a real sense of who Briscoe is, despite learning a fair amount about his political views and general outlook on life. No offense to you reporters out there, but I don’t often think “reporter” and “tough guy” in the same sentence–where did this guy learn how to kick so much ass? A mention that he was once in the Navy is our only clue. I suspected that this was because this is not the first book about Sam Briscoe and a bit of Googling seems to indicate that I was correct. If so, it’s forgivable–I know how annoying recaps can be to those who have read previous novels in a series.

The book suffers a bit from decisions made and clues missed that are the crime-fiction equivalent of how teens behave in bad slasher movies. I have further criticisms of the book, but voicing them would involve spoilers so I’ll keep them to myself.

I can imagine many readers having serious objections to the novel’s politics and worldview, but if you aren’t one of those or if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you in fiction, you may want to check it out. Despite its deep flaws, it’s well-written and enjoyable on the whole.  The Guns of Heaven shoves big, real-world issues and controversial politics (circa 1983) into a fairly standard crime-fiction template, and that approach in itself is so different from nearly everything out there that’s it’s worth looking into for the curious.