Another Boston-set novel. They like their crime in Boston.
Prince of Thieves, is a novel about armed robbers. It’s told from two points-of-view, robber Doug MacRay and an FBI-agent called Frawley, who’ve both fallen for the same woman, a victim of one of MacRay’s bank robberies. You can guess the rest from here. Frawley is determined to take down MacRay, and because they’re both mooning about the same woman, it gets personal.
But the real tension in the novel is between Doug and his best-friend Jem Coughlin. Doug wants to get out, he wants to change, but Jem wants everything to stay the same forever. Trouble is, the very streets around him, a working-class hotbed of blue-collar criminality, are becoming gentrified.
It’s a story about one man’s efforts to throw off generations of criminality. It’s about a man who wants to change and doesn’t know how to, and about how our backgrounds hardwire us to make certain choices. There are some great set-pieces in Prince of Thieves, the robbery scenes are cracking, but Chuck Hogan really takes the trouble to get under the skin of his characters, and every scene is packed with theme and subtext and all the stuff that really pumps up the drama.
As I continue to discover what kind of writer I want to be, I realise how much good writing always comes down to character for me. I like a good plot as much as the next man, but it’s the characters we really fall in love with. The vapid pop-pop and cordite whiff of gunfire and explosions hit the spot sometimes, sure, but it’s great characters that keeps the best fiction ticking over.
Theme is embedded into the narrative, in every scene and chapter: friendship, loyalty, change. Hogan’s voice is terrific. Every character is nuanced and real, so that by the time the shit inevitably hits the fan in the thrilling climax, we’re invested in Doug, and even in Jem.
It’s also very much a novel about a particular place. Charlestown, a district of Boston with an apparent tradition of criminality, looms very large in The Town. It’s also set at a very particular time. The novel was written – I think – in 2004 but is set in the mid-90s, presumably to reflect the enormous changes taking place in the area at that time. There are plenty of references to movies and movie stars of that period.
Hogan has recently finished working on his vampire Strain-trilogy with Guillermo del Toro, an interesting change of pace, and is apparently working with Don Winslow on a movie script – that’s got to be worth seeing when it comes out.
What I like: Hogan is terrific is squeezing drama into every situation. It’s never just two guys in a room. He uses props and themes to pump-up every scene, and to give them flavour. Take the scene with Fergie The Florist. Fergie is a nasty guy, the last of the old-time criminals left in Charlestown, but he’s also, rather improbably, the owner of a flower shop which he uses as a cover. According to Gloansy, he’s transformed his shop into ‘ugliest flower shop ever.’ We learn about Fergie from the casual disdain with which he handles his flowers, from the ‘brown and wrinkled petals’ and the ‘scummy and black-green vase water.’
How do you give your scenes that extra zing? What magic ingredient do you like to add?