Category: Archive

Family Values

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The mystery in Declan Hughes’s “The Color of Blood” is not in the plot so much as how Hughes came to dedicate such a story to his mother. This tale of suspense wraps five rapes (two involving children), two instances of incest (one case voluntary), a criminal gynecologist, a pornography ring, two hushed-up pregnancies, Lithuanian sex slaves, a nymphomaniac housewife, and improper teacher/student and employer/employee relations all into one mind-boggling plot that hopes we will be satisfied enough with these juicy morsels as to not expect much else. It’s a dirty business, pandering to our basest interests in an attempt to keep us turning the pages, all the while self-consciously reminding us that these things are terrible, terrible… we should not be enjoying ourselves. I wasn’t. But that’s mostly because of the state of the writing, not because I wasn’t waiting for the next helpless female to fall victim to some new perversion.
This is Hughes’s second novel, although his resume in Dublin theatre is much more extensive. “The Color of Blood” revolves around the Howards, a family whose legacy is based upon the success of Dr. John Howard, after which a Dublin medical complex is named. John is dead and his recently deceased wife’s will has, apparently, pitted his son against his daughter. Meanwhile, the son, Shane Howard, is being blackmailed with “videos” of his wayward college-aged daughter, who may or may not be kidnapped. To try to save the reputation of his family and his daughter, Shane hires Ed Loy, a private investigator — our narrator and protagonist, who conducts 340 pages worth of interviews and interrogations in order to drudge up a seemingly-infinite catalogue of unpleasant family history reaching back decades, and subsequently solving the various rapes and murders that ensue.
Because I want this review to make it into print, I will move onto the writing, which, strangely, lacked the vivid imagination applied to the plot. As much as the narrative showcases sexuality, the actual sex scenes are quite dull and uninspired, as are other details. For the most part, we get the colors of hair, eyes and clothing style, obesity, scars and dye-jobs -standard character descriptions. The players seem more like caricatures taken from police reports. Beyond that, the women are all helpless and oversexed or traumatized and oversexed, while some are all three. Every female character — and there are many — is violated in some way, except for (sigh) one hard-drinking lesbian journalist who merely witnessed her mother’s murder.
More generally, the problem with the writing is the separation of narrative drive and description. Any kind of scene descriptions are, for the most part, sequestered into their own paragraphs that fail to contribute to the story, just existing for the sake of having description. And when description does inform the action, it’s in the most obvious and repetitive ways. On almost every page there’s a reference to the red “bloodstones” that the various sullied women wear as jewelry. There are also lots of blood-red berries, which make attempts at relevance, but are “fit to burst” on page 148, for no apparent reason, more than a hundred pages before the climax. This divorce between plot and composition makes the justification for such a debauched story even weaker.
There’s a long history of debate on the definition of pornography. I believe that in many stories, there are two forces at work: narrative and spectacle. When you wrench narrative and craft from the spectacular, you are moving into the realm of pornography, which abandons the mind and elicits purely physical reactions. With this, “The Color of Blood,” toes the line of investing much more in spectacle than in the art of composition. But, when it’s all said and done, Hughes, it seems, has the mind but not the heart for such endeavors. And honestly, with sex scenes that read like a walk down the street, I don’t even think the pornographers would have him.

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