DARK AND BROKEN HEART by R. J. Ellory
R. J. Ellory, hit it big with his zeitgeist work A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS, and successive works further highlighted his skill as a literary crime novelist. Ellory seems to prefer to explore theme, characterisations and human fallibility more than following the conventions of the genre. It is difficult to pigeon-hole Ellory into a sub-genre, as he has written police procedurals (SAINTS OF NEW YORK), prison melodramas (CANDLEMOTH) international conspiracy thrillers (A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE) and gonzo-southern gothic chase thrillers (BAD SIGNS).
The same issue is evident in his tenth thriller, this time the focus is how flawed characters can gain a place of redemption for their past transgressions. A DARK AND BROKEN HEART, like most of Ellory’s work, is peopled with unlikeable characters, but despite this, Ellory shows their humanity and is never judgmental. This trait is most evident in the Bad Lieutenant-esque main character, Vincent Madigan, a cop with sociopathic tendencies and in serious debt, to Sandia, a.k.a. ‘The Watermelon Man’, a New York drug baron. He has one chance to sort out his life by partaking in a shakedown of a crew who has stolen $400,000.
Things go awry when Vincent is forced to kill his colleagues and a young girl is shot accidentally in the gunbattle. This could be termed collateral damage by bad people, but for Vincent it is beyond just that. Vincent then discovers that the stolen money is also ‘tagged’ andtherefore useless to him. This results in the rogue cop having to go to ground, with the cops and the mob, lead by Sandia, on the hunt for him.
The reader soon realises that Vincent Madigan has breached his sociopathic reach, as circumstances have moulded him into a full-blown psychopath, but a darkly charming one, a liar, druggie, user of people in the Deadly Pleasures 69 classical Machiavellian mould – but one with a contrasting streak of humanity. The conflicting sides of human nature are areas that Ellory readers will find familiar territory for this writer of tremendous insight and compassion.
So like a cornered rat, Vincent Madigan embarks on a plan that will resolve the problems he finds himself in, though the plan, like his nature, is curiously dangerous, reckless and one that has huge risk for him. Though for Vincent Madigan, his life has always rested on the edge, and this tale is a microcosmic examination of his life, and trying to understand exactly who he is, why he’s the way he is and also to find some context in his life and death. This all sounds very worthy, but the beauty of this novel is that it can be read as a conventional page turning thriller about a bad-cop on the edge with a hen house of chickens coming home to roost, or read with an existential eye like that of the works of Jean-Patrick Manchette. This is why I am never surprised when I hear of Ellory’s reputation and awards bestowed by the French, both in Europe as well as Canada. A DARK AND BROKEN HEART owes more to the French new-wave than its setting in the shadows of New York.