Stephen M Irwin

Hachette Australia (2011)

ISBN: 978-0-7336-2713-2

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

The Broken Ones is Brisbane writer Stephen M Irwin’s second novel, in which he builds on the skills shown in The Dark Path (2009) and realises much of the promise found there. Indeed, Hachette has signalled its confidence by slapping a moneyback guarantee on the cover. The publisher’s faith is well founded.

The story blends noir and horror and does it convincingly. It is set in a near future where ghosts have arisen, ushering in a dystopia of Blade Runner proportions across the globe. Everyone has a haunting spirit, an eyeless spectre in some way attached to their life. Facing the ghost of a dearly departed or even some apparent stranger, day in, day out: it gets on the nerves. Industry falls apart. Society frays. Rainy Brisbane is rendered into a broken down city of the have nots, the barely holding ons and the enclaved wealthy.

Oscar Mariani, a second-generation cop, has his own demons: an uneasy family background with its own non-supernatural skeletons in the closet, a bucket load of guilt, and the cold shoulder of the police department he works for. It doesn’t help that he’s an honest cop in a city where corruption is really just a dirty word for doing business.

Mariani’s life and career are brought to the edge when he investigates the murder of a young woman, her mangled body found inscribed with occult markings. The guilt runs not only all the way from the gutter to the city’s powerful, but into the spirit world as well.

There is much to like in this story.

The atmosphere, aided by Irwin’s screenwriter’s sensibility, is beautifully rendered and suitably Gothic with its rundown streets and urban hovels, thunderstorms and castle-like manors. There are not only rich sensory descriptions, but clues for solving the crime sprinkled in there as well.

Oscar is likeable and sympathetic, just smart enough to get himself into trouble and tough enough and lucky enough to get out again. The supernatural neither dominates nor jars. The story twists and surprises in the best detective noir tradition. And Irwin employs his mastery of creepiness, putting Oscar through a number of unsavoury situations that make the reader want to wash their hands thereafter.

Of course, there are nit picks.

Irwin’s love of metaphors could still use both some restraint to allow those that are truly wonderful – and there are plenty – the space to have their impact, and a few seem to try too hard. In a similar vein, the voice wavers in places, imbuing Oscar with a vocabulary and worldliness that doesn’t quite fit in his dishevelled suit.

Cut scenes out of Oscar’s point of view are probably unnecessary and arguably simply distracting – Oscar’s character, the sense of place and mood, the natural way in which the ghosts are part of this world, are all sufficient to not only hook my interest but maintain it. Likewise, three pages of info dump disguised as a newspaper article to open the book feels unwarranted when the narrative itself tells the necessary details.

One or two of the action sequences feel a little forced, as though the flow chart of action-character development called for an adrenalin boost, and a couple of elements of the plot come across as unlikely but not implausible. And there are, what seems almost industry standard these days, a handful of literal errors, just enough to be annoying, the worst a girl showing off her ‘naval’.

Copy errors aside, such nit picks of style and structure largely boil down to reader preference. They certainly don’t negate the fact that The Broken Ones is an enjoyable, comfortable read, showing solid knowledge of its mixed genres and bringing a convincing iteration to the canon of stories about ghosts and human sacrifice.

The Dead Path received strong reviews and has sold into several overseas markets, but it left me largely unmoved. Yet the signs were there that Irwin was a writer to keep an eye on. The Broken Ones more than justifies that view. The door is left open for a return to Oscar’s milieu; regardless of just what story Irwin concocts next, I’m keen to see where Irwin’s developing skills take us. Moneyback guarantee not needed.