Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Dangerous Lady by Martina Cole, 1992

The Ryans, Benjamin and Sarah, and their nine children including eight sons and a daughter, live in squalor and deprivation in a seedy district of London. Michael, the eldest, loves his mother and dotes on his little sister Maura, the joy and pride of the Ryans. He is indifferent to his father, a good-for-nothing boozer who introduces him and his brothers to small crimes at a young age. Soon, cops, or "Bills" as they are referred to in the novel, come a-calling. Michael loathes the uniforms so much that, when he grows up to be a ruthless mobster, his antipathy to the police nearly destroys the family he is protective of and fiercely loyal to.

In many ways, Michael Ryan, born into an Irish-English family and ruling the West End of the London underworld, is like Michael Corleone, born into a Sicilian-American mafia family and running the New York gangland. But the similarity ends there.

In spite of Michael Ryan's intimidating presence through most of the 416-page novel, Dangerous Lady is not so much about him as his beautiful sister Maura. Following a secret love affair with a cop, fear of Michael and a painful abortion at the age of 17, she joins her brother and together they build a criminal empire that would’ve made the Sicilian Mafia proud. She proves her worth not just to Michael and her other brothers, but even to the traditionally male-dominated crime syndicates of London. And yet, tough as she comes, Maura has a soft side to her, the result of unfulfilled love that eventually comes back to haunt her and possibly gives her a shot at redemption.

British crime writer Martina Cole’s debut novel is more than a high-octane crime story; it’s the violent saga of a crime family whose exploits stretch from post-war London in the 1950s to the mid-1980s. As the years roll, the Ryans lose more than they gain, both within the family and on the streets of West End.

Though Dangerous Lady is a crime drama with plenty of action and gory scenes, I had a few issues with the novel. One, it was rather long, the narrative seeming to drag on in places and frequently moving back and forth. I'm not much for flashbacks. Two, I thought the writing was ordinary, as was the dialogue. I read somewhere that Martina Cole wrote the novel in her early 20s and published it years later. She has since written over two dozen books to wide acclaim and rave reviews. Three, I felt somewhat cheated that in the end I couldn't empathise with or relate to any of the characters, neither Michael or Maura, nor their strong-willed mother, Sarah, or any of their seven brothers who work for Michael and Maura. It’s not how I expected to come away from a crime thriller of this scale.

In spite of my reservations, Dangerous Lady is both entertaining and readable. It's a dramatic canvas of organised crime and an all-too-real portrayal of an unlikely female gangster with a heart. I plan to read more in the Maura Ryan series as well as other books by the author.

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