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It's probably in everyone's best interests if you start from the beginning from a series of books. This way you get to grow with the characters as they evolve and their lives change. However, reading habits are not always like this and if you are anything like me you end up getting a book out of the Library and not realising until it is too late that you are on Book 8. In the case of the best authors this should not be an issue as they develop their characters within a series of self contained stories; you may miss out on some of the nuances, but overall the story should work. I took this approach to Colin Bateman's 'Dan Starkey' books and read them piecemeal and out of order. Finally, I had read all but one. What should the last book be but 'Divorcing Jack' the character's debut? Would the first book show that Bateman was a skilful writer from the very beginning, or someone that needed to improve?
It's the mid 90s in Northern Ireland and the troubles are still not over; but peace is on the way. With this in mind the government are inviting sympathetic foreign journalists to visit and they need local reporters as chaperones. Some barrel scraping later and Dan Starkey gets the job of showing around an American journalist. Starkey is not the man normally required for this type of job as the writer of a pithy opinion column designed to annoy every one. His home life is not much better when he is thrown out of the house for snogging another woman. With his home life in tatters and a work life way out of his area of understanding Starkey is already on the verge of a nervous breakdown; add the murder of someone close, the accidental death of their mother, the interest of the local IRA and the CIA; you have a recipe for disaster.
Colin Bateman was the author de jour during a short period of the mid 90s; his smartly dark and violent novels made 'Divorcing Jack' a successful book and later film. However, since the heyday his star has waned as only the loyal stuck with him. This is a shame as he has written some of the best comedic crime fiction around for the past 15 years. Not one of his books is poor and his biting sarcasm is more relevant than ever. Therefore, when his latest 'Mystery Man' was chosen for the Richard and Judy book club it was a timely reminder of one of the top authors around who is currently in the best form of his life. It was about time that I went back and read how it all started!
Perhaps it is because I read the books out of order, but 'Divorcing Jack' was a great read, but not quite up to Bateman's best. It felt like a template that would be improved and expanded upon in later novels to much better effect. The story is solid enough and is a funny murder mystery as Starkey stumbles from catastrophe to catastrophe somehow managing to survive long enough to get some answers. For me, the central premise of the book was a little more strained than I am used to from the author and he managed to iron out these flaws later in his career.
Like with the majority of Colin Bateman's novels 'Divorcing Jack' works because the journey is so good, not the conclusion itself. The various adventures are fantastic, funny and very dark. The character of Starkey is in relative infancy here, but already he shows the signs of the man that you love to hate. Starkey is pretty useless when it comes down to it, but his sarcastic nature in front of danger makes you really like him. There is a thin line that needs to be trod when writing an irritating character, Bateman is one of the few authors I have read who has manages to pull it off.
A book written in the 1990s that deals with the terrorist issues of Northern Ireland should feel dated. It is credit to Bateman that this is not the case as although the book is almost 15 years old it still feels as fresh as ever. This is because Dan Starkey is such an enjoyable character to read about and his exploits are amusing no matter the period. I believe that the cynical edge that Bateman brings to his work is more relevant now than it was even then. 'Divorcing Jack' is not the best in the series, but is a good introduction to Starkey and the world he inhabits. As a template for what is to come all the elements are there, with a little more polish Bateman was primed for writing some of the best comedic crime fiction of the past 10 years.
Author: Colin Bateman
Price: Amazon uk - £9.48
Play - £10
I have started going back though my old book collection and reading some of them for a final time before they have to head off to the charity shop in town as the number of books I have is beginning to take over my house and I need the space for new books.
Divorcing Jack was one of those books that looked familiar from the cover but when I read the back cover no bells started ringing and at 282 pages it looked ideal for a couple of afternoons reading in the sun.
Dan Starkey is a Belfast journalist and he fits very nicely into a familiar stereotype of being a hard drinking hack with a sarcastic tongue even though e has not yet reached his 30th birthday. Starkey writes a column for the Belfast Evening News in which he puts across a humourous pro-unionist position. His column is widely read and very popular with some sections of the community but not all however his notoriety does mean that he is a known face in Belfast.
Looking to earn some extra money he takes on an additional job accompanying foreign journalists around the country whilst the current elections draw to a close. However before he can properly start the job a drunken evening with a young student Margaret finds him getting caught in a compromising position by his wife and his life begins to take a downward spiral which sees him fleeing from the police and a range of criminals and terrorists from both sides of the political divide.
The strength of this book is in the wonderfully descriptive characters that it contains and indeed most of the humour is generated by their dry Belfast wit.
Starkey himself is a likeable character no matter how much he appears out of his depth there is a boyish innocence about him and he also seems to be able to come up with a quick one liner no matter how dangerous or desperate the situation.
Some of the other characters from the Belfast underworld are wonderfully described not least one of the main republican criminals Cowpat Coogan and his henchmen who feature heavily in the story.
The only really unconvincing character is Lee, someone who comes to Starkey aid and her character is a bit beyond belief especially her motivation or getting involved which is rather glossed over.
This book has pretty much everything going for it, an interesting plot with lots of twists, some great characters and some wonderful moments of dark humour that will have you chuckling away.
The setting of a Northern Ireland which has not yet moved into the peace process is an interesting one, as it was written in the early 90s. You certainly get a fell for the menace that existed whilst all of the time people got on with their ordinary lives and there are some great exchanges between Starkey and a cab driver which serve to highlight peoples attitudes at the time especially those who were doing one of the most dangerous occupations (taxi driving that is) when sectarian killings were a common place thing.
The action in this book is fast paced and certainly grabs you at an early stage and I found that the book developed into a real page turner that was very hard to put down. Bateman tells the story entirely from Starkey perspective and this works well as the reader gets a feeling for just how much he is out of his depth and it also helps to build the tension as you know what Starkey is planning to do even though you can make a pretty educated guess that it will all go wrong in the end.
It was good to read a book where I did not see all of the plot twists coming however t the same time all of these twists were very believable and I could find only a couple of small bits in the book which stretched my sense of reality.
There are quite a few laughs in the book and the humour works really well, there is something appealing about the sarcastic self effacing humour used by the characters, often in moments of greatest peril and some of the situations that Starkey finds himself in are very comical.
Born in Northern Ireland this was Colin Bateman first novel and given that he himself used to write an award winning weekly satirical column for the County Down Spectator you can see a certain similarity between him and his first character Starkey. Following the success of Divorcing Jack he has published 14 additional novels some of which feature Starkey as well as writing the screen play for Divorcing Jack however he is probably best known for Murphy Law featuring James Nesbitt.
For more information on the author check out his website at
I would definitely recommend reading this book as it is action packed and full of humour and makes for a very entertaining read.
Published by Harper Collins the rrp on my copy is £5.99 ISBN 0-00-6479030 however you can pick up copies at Amazon for £5.59 new or from 10 pence in the new and used section or finally you could go to my local Red Cross charity shop in Duston where it will probably be on sale for 50 pence.
Thanks for reading and rating my review.
Divorcing Jack is the first book to introduce us to Dan Starkey, Belfast journalist and jack the lad, who has a rather dangerous habit of getting involved in sticky situations involving some of Northern Ireland’s less savoury paramilitaries. Recently I bought Shooting Sean, the latest book in the series, and enjoyed it so much that I had to go back to the start to find out what happened at the start. You might have seen the film – I haven’t, so I can’t comment on how similar or different this book is to the film. The book is more centred on Belfast and Northern Ireland than Shooting Sean, which took in Amsterdam and Cannes as well. Like I said with Shooting Sean, a large part of the appeal for me in these books is how close the books feel to me. Dan and his wife live in the Holy Land, a large suburban area off the Ormeau Road and close to Queen’s University. I park in the Holy Land most days’s when I go to university; so when Dan is talking, I can see exactly what he’s seeing. I’ve been in the pubs he drinks in, seen the sights he saw. It makes the book a whole lot more real to me – people might like to imagine what it was like, but this way, I can imagine the scene right down to what he smells. Dan is writes a column in the Belfast News, but times are hard for him and his wife Patricia, so he decides to take on a job showing foreign journalists around the city. This introduces him to Parker, the American journalist who is covering the local elections for an American paper, who has travelled over to interview Brinn, the leader of the Alliance party, the party in the middle, the peace party, who are expected to win the election by a landslide. This job suits Dan down to the ground – he gets to show Parker round his hometown whilst wining (beering would be a more appropriate term) and dining at someone else’s expense. Nice work if you can get it! But, as you might have guessed
, something else is about to happen to our hero; otherwise it would be a boring story. Dan has a great sense of humour, he’s a funny guy, but he’s not THAT good. And so, one day while sleeping drunk in the park (as you do), he meets a student, Margaret, who he brings back to a party at his house. Dan and Margaret get on well, too well perhaps, as Patricia comes up the stairs to find them kissing. Dan gets thrown out and ends up spending the night with Margaret, not really helping matters along by sleeping with Margaret. Well, if you’re doing something, may as well do it in style. Just when he thinks things couldn’t get any worse, they do. He pops out to get something to eat, coming back to find Margaret murdered in bed and the house ransacked. To complete the mess, he manages to attack Margaret’s mother as she comes up the stairs to see what’s going on, knocking her down the stairs and breaking her neck. Two dead people, and Dan’s in major trouble, what\are the police going to say. Knocking a woman down the stair, maybe you can explain, but the girl upstairs with holes in her chest might be a little harder. So Dan does what any responsible man would do, he gets his ass out of there. However, that doesn’t explain why he ends up being pursued by both the loyalist and nationalist paramilitaries. What does he have that could possibly be of interest to both of them? That’s probably a convenient place to stop to avoid giving away any more of the plot. I enjoyed the book immensely, largely due to the fact that the plot is twisty, turny and unpredictable, it is very hard, almost impossible to see what’s going to happen next, and even when you do think you’ve got it sussed, it’ll throw in a little something to catch you off guard even more. Another part of the appeal is that it’s so matter of fact. It doesn’t try to pretend that death doesn’t happen, and by nothing be
coming overly attached to characters, it makes it all the more realistic. This book deals with Paramilitaries who would gladly put a bullet in your head for five minutes amusement. By not ignoring this, it makes the book a lot grittier and harder hitting. It doesn’t glorify it, in fact it shows how senseless and brutal it all is, but it brings home how nasty and undesirable the criminal underworld of Northern Ireland is. It’s a bit too humorous to be a true thriller, but a little to dark to be a true comedy. It kind of falls in between the two, but not in a bad way, in the type of way that will satisfy people who enjoy either type of book. It’s quite fast paced and action packed, there’s always something going on whether it is some kind of situation, argument or conversation. The chapter are really well organised, each ends on some kind of cliffhanger, making it really difficult to put the book down. It’s like watching Neighbours or something, except that you don’t have to wait until the next day to find out what happens. Like I said about Shooting Sean, it isn’t slapstick comedy. It’s mostly wit and spoken humour rather than running around like a mad thing and falling over. It’s like Die Hard, except with a funnier lead character than Bruce Willis. I take that back – it’s more realistic than the type of Die Hard film – yes, Starkey is taking on Paramilitaries in order to try and survive, but not legions of them at a time. There’s no jumping off buildings for Starkey, he spends most of his time running away from them. Dan Starkey is an excellent lead character. He’s witty and sharp and has an uncanny knack of getting out of dodgy situations by the skin of his teeth. He provides a bit of lightness in the dangerous situations, like a James Bond making jokes when he’s facing death, except without most of the class and style of a James Bond. He has humour
you would kill for; able to come out with something witty when it looks like his numbers up. Some might call him a bit of a smart arse, but I think it’s quite endearing. The supporting characters are all excellent as well. Parker becomes a rather unwitting sidekick during the book, and he becomes more of a serious foil to Starkey – while Starkey is more of the type of person to rush straight in without thinking, Parker would rather consider things before taking action. The other characters work really well, interacting with one another superbly. They’re always having some kind of argument or conversation, usually degenerating into something sarcastic. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. It’s probably the type of book that would appeal to young adult, it seems to be aimed mainly at that type of audience as it is quite a laid back novel. I’m sure older readers would enjoy it as well; it just seems to be one of those books aimed at a youngish audience. The style of writing is very laid back and it’s easy to dip in and out of. The chapters are quite short so it’s quite easy to read in short chunks when you have five minutes free time here and there. It’s 282 pages long, a few days reading at the most, as once you do pick it up, that five minutes can multiply and turn into a much greater period of time. The writing style is witty and laid back. It’s written in the first person, as if Starkey is telling you the events after it has all happened. This format works very well and it allows the writer to use his wit and charm, and stops the events becoming a little mundane and boring. The conversational style allows him to more accurately reflect exactly what was going through his mind at each point in time, and he often goes completely off on a tangent, as something jogs his memory and reminds him of something else, something related to it, which again helps illustrate what he is trying to convey t
o us. Comparing what he was feeling at the time to something we all would have experience of gives us a much better indication of exactly what is running through my head. It also is a pretty accurate reflection of some of the silly things that pop into you mind whenever something bad is happening to you – all the memories, regrets, lines from songs, funny things like that. Not that you’ve ever been held at gunpoint by terrorists. At least I hope you haven’t. If I’d known about this, I’d certainly have read this before Shooting Sean, as there are a few references to the events of this book in Shooting Sean. It doesn’t spoil it, but it’s like watching a sequel before you see the first one – you know which characters make it and which don’t. It’s still a damn fine read, funny, edgy and exciting. If you’re into your awards, this won the Betty Trask Prize in 1994. I haven’t heard of that, but that means it’s good, so go out and get it, OK!
Dan Starkey is a journalist in Belfast, who shares with his wife Patricia, an appetite for drinking and dancing. Dan meets Margaret, and things begin to get out of hand - terrifyingly, she is murdered. Before long, Dan is a target himself, racing as fast as he can against time to crack the mystery. In Colin Bateman's first novel, Divorcing Jack, a witty Belfast newspaper columnist named Dan Starkey gets drunk, falls in lust, and finds himself helplessly mired in trouble with his wife and the law. Shortly after Starkey's wife catches him in the arms of another woman, that woman is murdered and Starkey becomes the prime suspect. It turns out that the deceased woman was related to an important political figure, and now thugs from several of Northern Ireland's factions are out to get Starkey. The columnist decides he must track down the killer in order to clear his own name. During the investigation, he uncovers a scandal that could potentially alter the outcome of the next national election--and destroy the country's hopes for peace.