The book is written with the vividness and economy of a screenplay, unfolding through a series of sharply observed scenes full of cliffhangers, misdirection and reverses. Its lovely, rhythmic prose evokes the stinks of the Victorian city, its factories, rat-baiting arenas and slaughterhouses. McGuire dwells with fascination on the process of police work; in the breadth of its sympathies and its curiosity about detection and surveillance, the novel reminded me of the best police procedurals – The Wire by gaslight. McGuire does everything well: evoking the pungent atmosphere of a teeming industrial city, recreating the period in a way that resonates with our own time without seeming preachy, and writing sharp dialogue that crackles with subtext.
If The Abstainer seems less stylistically innovative and aesthetically ambitious than The North Water, it is, nevertheless, a superbly written novel; McGuire is undoubtedly a master of his medium and never puts a foot wrong. With its engrossing historical setting, frenzied plot, and impeccable prose, The Abstainer may well earn McGuire his widest readership yet.
It’s great fun — and this is one of the novel’s many strengths. It swerves from comedy to the darker stuff with ease and elegance. It is far from a funny book, but Dickens is there in the language, the coincidences, the unrolling of the story. The grandiosity and ineptitude of the cops and of the Fenians reminded me of Conrad’s “The Secret Agent.” “I’ve been sworn to secrecy,” brags one character, quite early in the novel, when pressed about the fiver in his pocket. I laughed when I read that line; I knew I was in for a treat... This is Dickens in the present tense, Dickens for the 21st century.
In 1867 three Irishmen are hanged in Manchester. They were Fenians, members of a secret society dedicated to freeing Ireland from British rule, and their comrades in the city want revenge. In McGuire’s novel they seek to gain it through employing an assassin, Stephen Doyle, a man hardened by the American Civil War. Pitted against him is James O’Connor, a Dubliner who has escaped loss and misery to work as a police officer in Manchester. As the two driven men pursue one another through the city’s streets McGuire explores conflicting ideas of justice and loyalty in a world where violence is ever present.
McGuire’s portrait of two men locked in a grisly, vengeful dance with each other is masterly. Doyle is driven and ruthless, convinced of his own righteous cause. O’Connor is a sadder creature, bedevilled by grief and haunted by his mistakes.
With an abrupt shift in the final act, The Abstainer devolves into a double revenge drama. While O’Connor seeks out Doyle for his Manchester crimes, Doyle turns his violent urges against the estranged relatives who wronged him. The bulk of the novel becomes a set-up to this run-around. In the process, the character of Doyle is flattened. We find out far too late that he is not an embodiment of Fenian direct action but something else altogether. Despite his fanatic Irish republicanism, in the end bloodlust compels Doyle to try out another cause: he idly considers ‘going down to Texas to fight the Indian’.