The Irish can be a clannish, haunted, superstitious lot, keeners of shaded death songs, murderous in their ancient convictions. The Irish can also be workaday noble and quietly courageous, steady seekers after the flickering light of truth and justice, no matter the cost. This volatile mix comes to a rolling boil in Richard Montanari’s novel Shutter Man, set in Philadelphia, and especially in the Irish enclave known as the Devil’s Pocket, three square blocks hard by the Schuylkill, bordered by Christian and Taney Streets, Grays Ferry Avenue, and the walls of Naval Square.
Outsiders there have never been suffered gladly. Writer Pete Dexter and his friend, boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb were mercilessly beaten with baseball bats and crowbars in a Devil’s Pocket bar in 1981, and that kind of hospitality still lingers, gentrification be hanged.
Shutter Man is at once an examination of incipient evil, a brilliant police procedural, and a masterful study of the characters that make up this dark and twisted tale of brutal, blood-soaked murders, their delusional rationale, and the dogged investigation that brings to light the weight of the past on each moment of the present.
The Farrens are the scourge of “the Pocket,” a family whose bar was called simply the Stone, and whose members are brazen predators, genetic criminals. Their youngest surviving son, Michael Anthony Farren, lives in a faceless world in which he has become the serial killer Billy the Wolf, stripping his carefully chosen victims of their faces with a straight razor. Billy himself suffers from a rare disorder, prosopagnosia, which literally prevents him from seeing faces.
Billy’s face blindness came about after two years in a coma as the result of being hit by a car, and with it came the killing madness that is at the novel’s heart. Billy is a man with faces shuttered to him for all time. With his fraternal twin, Sean, Billy carves a trail through Philadelphia and its suburbs of close-up, face-taking barbarity.
Good versus evil
Following this bloody trail is the Philadelphia homicide detective Kevin Byrne, Irish, too, with close ties to the Pocket that bind and haunt him through his relentless unraveling of its dark secrets and those of the Farren family.
Drawn into this murderous maelstrom, too, is Jessica Balzano, Byrne’s ex-partner, now a Philadelphia assistant district attorney and a South Philly girl married to a working narcotics cop.
Author Montanari is a Cleveland native, and the first sentence of Shutter Man is cause for misgiving, placing Melrose Park within city limits, but this quibble quickly fades with his authoritative knowledge of the ways and mores of Philadelphia, the workings of a modern police force, and, driving the narrative, the people involved in this complex and mysterious crime tale. Even the secondary characters, mere walk-ons in less skilled hands, are carefully provided with the necessary, albeit brief, backstories to bring them alive and unique as they pass through.
This is the ninth novel in Montanari’s Byrne-Balzano series, all set in Philadelphia, and it was named one of the 10 best crime novels of 2016 by the New York Times Book Review. Not a traditional “whodunit,” Shutter Man’s abiding question is why Billy the Wolf has embarked on his twisted journey. Byrne and Balzano identify the Farren brothers as the killers fairly early on, and search for a motive even as they scour the dark Philadelphia streets for the brothers themselves.
Byrne’s deaf daughter, Coleen, and one of her former teachers at Gallaudet University, uncover the elusive reason for the killing rampage. Sister Kathleen, in her 70s, and now living at Gardenia Hall, a convent home and health care center in Malvern, has long been interested in arcane puzzles like the Sator Square, which Coleen identified as the key to the serial murders, and which Sister Kathleen explains to Kevin Byrne can be an emblem used by the old Irish, among others, to ward off evil and dispel curses.
Even as the cancer of the Farrens is removed from Devil’s Pocket, Kevin Byrne discovers that the ripples of their malignity still touch even those who came innocent to the Pocket.
As one tragic and doomed survivor says, “The world is full of weeping.”