Again this was written for rte but not used on the sad grounds (sorry!) that the book was already out of print by the time I got round to reviewing it. While this is a completely necessary rule as far as rte is concerned (there is no point the site carrying reviews of unavailable books), it is a real pity that this book did not get a better chance – anyway it is worth looking for a second-hand or library copy.

Cormac Millar – The Grounds (2007)

Seamus Joyce, the protagonist of Millar’s first novel AN IRISH SOLUTION, has retired from iDEA (the Irish Drugs Enforcement Agency) and is living in Germany with his girlfriend Heidi. A short-term job investigating a financial fraud in New York. where he distinguishes himself, leads to him being offered another job by Senator Hinckley, the head of an organisation called Finer Small Campuses of the Western World, FSC for short. Hinckley wants Seamus to provide a report on the state of Kings College Dublin, in which FSC are considering investing. FSC’s previous representative in Dublin, Connolly, has disappeared, there is a new President, Cregan, a sacked German Professor, a missing History Professor and a drowned research assistant. There are financial discrepancies. So Seamus flies back to Dublin, searching for some purpose to his life, to return to the institution which he himself attended decades earlier, and was the background to some of the decisions and events which have shaped his destiny. As soon as he arrives he is meeting people he knew from his student days, such as the embittered, spiteful but delightfully loquacious academic Quaid, and more poignantly the great love of his student days, Fionnuala Fagan, who abandoned Seamus for a Professor, Dr Gaskell, and left for Canada. Fionnuala is now back at King’s, which institution, it soon becomes apparent to Seamus, is in even greater disarray than his report would suggest. It is hardly a surprise when a murder follows.

It is remarkable to read THE GROUNDS when AN IRISH SOLUTION is still fresh in the mind. Most of the faults of the latter seem to have been erased; the occasional pretentiousness, the stereotypical drug dealers, even the fashionably dark ending, of the first novel have been corrected. Which is certainly not to say that Millar has therefore lost his edge. Far from it. This book is passionately angry, and very funny, about the state of Higher Education in Ireland (and I have no doubt Millar’s reading is wholly apposite to the UK as well). Management-speak, consultant’s jargon, are brought off brilliantly. As an academic novel this is fierce satire – think Bradbury/Lodge rather than Dorothy Sayers. But fiercer than say Lodge because the situation is now, of course, far worse. Millar handles this material brilliantly.

It might be objected however that Millar is indulging his own interests (he is a lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin) in this book. But in fact he is entitled to do this for two reasons. In the first place the book is built upon excellent plotting. One of Millar’s special gifts is in hiding clues in plain sight. In this case the central clue lies in events which are touched on in passing as Seamus watches the news and meditates on the state of the world. As was the case with AN IRISH SOLUTION one is left with the feeling at the end, when all has been explained, that one would like to go back and re-read the book again just to follow his plot construction. But, unlike the first book, in THE GROUNDS the plot is also excellently paced, with the actual events crammed into a single week, although it reaches far into the past where the book’s events have their root. The plot summary only touches on the complexities and breadth of the story which, as in AN IRISH SOLUTION, are on the grand scale.

The second basis for Millar to indulge in his satirical bent – and many of the characters encountered are satirical sketches – lies in Seamus Joyce himself. Unlike AN IRISH SOLUTION this book is told entirely from Seamus’s viewpoint, as if the author had realised when he completed that first book what a gem of a protagonist he had created. And how unlikely. Seamus Joyce ‘had spent a lifetime trying, with some success, to be dull.’ What joy to find such a protagonist in a mystery novel! Of course Seamus is not dull to the reader; he may be, in his own estimation ‘ a man born for quiet mediocrity’, and consider himself more Sancho Panza than Don Quixote, but he is fascinating nonetheless or maybe because of this. But where AN IRISH SOLUTION was about Seamus’s quest for redemption, which he could only achieve with the help of others, THE GROUNDS is about his own quest to understand his past; that which has made him. This includes both the immediate past, as loose ends from the first book are tied up and several characters re-appear, and his more distant student days and early life. Because Seamus Joyce is such a real and rounded character, Millar can get away with his brilliant caricatures.

THE GROUNDS is self-evidently a ‘campus novel’ and an ‘academic mystery’ (a long and distinguished tradition for which I have a special weakness) and is a very fine example of both. It is also very specific in its setting. There are reflections on Irish society and politics which, while having a universal resonance, would no doubt mean even more to Irish readers. This is never a criticism for me as I like books which are grounded in the particular, as long as this does not exclude the general reader which Millar does not.

Unlike his first book Millar concludes THE GROUNDS with a whole flight of positive and increasingly absurd endings. In the 21st Century the positive becomes an absurdity. What is a person to do? Well we finish this book with Seamus, Candide like, back in Germany, watching Heidi tend their garden. My only problem with this is that I am not sure how much further Millar can take Joyce. Well there is always Davnet O’Reilly from AN IRISH SOLUTION – she is certainly worth another book! THE GROUNDS demonstrates as clearly as possible how a writer can deal with the faults which intruded on their first novel: Millar has largely expelled the faults, and by keeping the strengths produced a truly first-rate mystery.