Cycle of Violence shows how a writer can be both solidly formulaic and brilliantly quirky by turns. Occasionally this means that Bateman seems unsure of whether he is writing a witty thriller or a violent comedy of manners, but in his protagonist finds a character capable of sensing the humour latent in his own dramatic situations. This is a novel where foolishness rather than malice is responsible for much of the violence, where a man can be given a perm before his execution, and where the heroes are killed for taking a loaf of bread (but only after they’ve been chased around the shop four times). All of which can leave the reader in a no-man’s land, halfway between being gripped and curiously unaffected.
A drunken embarrassment after his father’s funeral, renowned journalist Miller (no other name) is exiled to Crossmaheart, a ‘hole’ on the outskirts of Belfast, where he is to work for the local paper. This hard-nosed Kylie Minogue fan, who bicycles into town every inch the hungover urban cowboy, becomes quickly involved with Marie Young, ‘Marie, mad Marie’, and through her confessions gradually uncovers a case-history of sexual abuse which touches some of the most prominent members of the local community. Through a series of bizarre circumstances Miller finds himself instrumental in the deaths of three of the perpetrators and the disappearance of the fourth. Added to this is his discovery of the gruesome fate of the journalist he was sent to replace, who was himself an ex-lover of Marie Young. Cycle of violence, indeed, and a plot delivered with some panache if a little hastily.
Bateman does well to inject the story with some telling contemporary symbolism. The two local pubs, Rileys and The Ulster Arms, religously poles apart, stand as two saloons at the opposite ends of Main Street, and the juxtaposition of priest and gangster makes the reader question what it is to be of influence in Ulster. Yet it is in the singular details that Bateman is at his best, when he infuses simple exchanges with a seemingly casual detail that elevates the scene to a truly incisive level. The landlady who quotes Oscar Wilde in ignorance, the moment when Miller nods in response to a blind man’s question and Miller’s repeating of his lover’s words in all the accents of the world, these are some of the moments when the thriller writer becomes a writer comfortable with his own individuality, and they linger long after the noise of the story has died down.
Reviewed by Simon Peters