|EAST OF INNOCENCE
It’s an old joke, well-worn. What’s the difference between God and a lawyer? The man sitting across the desk from me, eyes fixed on my face, doesn’t look like he’d appreciate the punch line.
Daniel Connell, son of an Essex hard-man, is a big-time lawyer fallen on hard times. Following a disagreement with one of the partners at the high-powered law firm where he worked, the hulking Connell finds himself back in the town where he grew up, practicing a variety of law that is very different to the cases he was used to in the City. Terry Campion, policeman and client, turns up at Daniel’s office, beaten and bruised, and hands him a collection of discs. Terry has been beaten by a group of fellow policemen, and the discs contain video evidence of the assault. Unknown to Terry, they also contain something a lot more valuable to his attackers, and to the family of young Rosie O’Shaughnessy, missing presumed dead. Daniel’s other case, Billy Morrison’s injury in a hit and run accident, turns out to be less accidental than Billy might like to believe, and brings Connell in contact with local crime boss, Vincent Halliday who, with an offhand remark, begins Connell’s search for his mother, a woman he believes walked out on him and his father when he was only a few days old. Making no friends, and facing violence at every turn, Connell sets out to find his missing mother, and to seek the downfall of Baldwin, the psychotic policeman whose assault on Terry Campion is the least of his crimes, and of Vincent Halliday, whose decision thirty-seven years earlier sealed the course of Daniel’s life of abuse and terror at the hands of his father.
Connell’s career choice is, interestingly, what sets David Thorne’s debut novel aside from many others in a similar genre. He isn’t a policeman, not a private detective. And yet, his role as lawyer, and the community in which he practices, combine to make him a sort of everyman who has the habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (for him; for us readers, it’s perfect, a mystery thriller with a hint of a difference). Connell is a big man, and as we learn about his background, it becomes clear that the choice of law probably surprised many of the people who knew him. Even now, at thirty-seven years old, Connell is introduced (and, on more than one occasion, introduces himself) not as "Daniel Connell", but as "Frankie’s boy", which tells both the person to whom he is being introduced, and the reader, all we need to know about Daniel and his father, and the kinds of circles in which they move.
Connell is instantly likeable (quite a feat for a lawyer, if you follow the joke that opens the novel to its logical conclusion), a decent, honest and surprisingly gentle man in the body of a giant thug. His search for his mother, at times irritating, as it takes away from the action/thriller-based subplots, becomes key to the novel as we realise just how well this man has turned out under the circumstances, and how much better things might have been for him under the care of a much more caring parent. Connell’s father is a nasty and abusive alcoholic, a man who revels in handing out punishment, even to the giant that his son has become.
The people who surround Connell are as well-drawn as the central character, and Thorne spends considerable time evoking the small Essex town where these people live and do business. Connell’s best friend is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, a man considerably changed since his return from war less one leg; Vincent Halliday comes across as the typical East End gangster, an unpleasant man – getting on in years – who relies on hired muscle to do his dirty work; and Baldwin, a police officer who has taken the power and authority of the office to the extreme, a man who sees himself as above the law, and who will stop at nothing when he feels that his position is in danger.
Baldwin smiled reasonably. ‘If you don’t tell me,’ he said, ‘I’m going to cut your finger off.’ He raised his eyebrows, as if a thought had just struck him. ‘On that bandsaw.’
In Baldwin, Thorne has created one of the most morally reprehensible figures in British crime fiction, a man the reader loves to hate, but one so charismatic, so utterly evil, that he still manages to steal every single scene of which he is a part.
Connell tells the story in a well-developed voice, in a present tense which lends some immediacy to the proceedings. There are moments of sheer horror with darkly humorous interludes, and even some genuinely touching moments as we follow Daniel on his quest to locate his lost childhood. He’s a quick-witted and sharp-tongued protagonist who makes an instant impression on anyone he meets, including the reader.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘This is my office. I have client confidentialities to respect, other cases to take care of. No offence, but it’s going to be hard to do that with some hired goon standing in the corner.’ Eddie frowns. ‘By hired good, Eddie, I mean you.’
East of Innocence is the first novel from a talented writer who cut his teeth on TV and radio comedy. His origins definitely shine through in the novel, despite its dark tone and subject matter – Daniel Connell is a witty and intelligent man, and we like him almost instantly upon meeting him. By turns gruesome, touching, violent, funny, East of Innocence is never less than engaging and always unpredictable. It’s a wonderfully written example of gritty British crime drama that we’re as likely as not to see on our TV screens in the near future, peopled with strong and engaging characters, most notably the story’s central character who is more than capable of carrying a series of books, if Thorne can find a way to keep each entry fresh and interesting. His debut is definitely a winner.