Laurence O'Bryan's roots go back to a small estate deep in the Mountains of Mourne, near the Silent Valley, in County Down, Northern Ireland. He went to school in Dublin, drank way too much, studied English and history, then business, then IT at Oxford University. While a student, he worked as a kitchen porter in a club near the Bank of England. He also published a guide to social media called, Social Media is Dynamite. His novel The Istanbul Puzzle was shortlisted for The Irish Crime Novel of the Year, 2012.
Manhattan – A City from a Dream
I have been to Manhattan, the site of my latest novel, The Manhattan Puzzle, only four times. Each time it was different and so was I. Manhattan became part of my dream of prosperity. If I had enough money, in my fantasy, I would leave Ireland, visit Manhattan and enjoy all the interesting things that the city could offer. Later, after 9/11 and the financial crash my impressions of the city changed. They became darker. There were forces battling over the island and innocent lives were being lost or wasted.
Manhattan, the mid-town section around Grand Central Terminal, is a character in The Manhattan Puzzle. It exists in the streets around the Terminal and in the imaginary BXH Bank headquarters, a 1920’s era skyscraper with a secret underneath. I couldn’t write a story about Manhattan without that presence coming through strongly, like Marilyn or Frank Sinatra swaggering past you as they head towards a limousine.
I believe place is a vital part of any novel. I went deep under Grand Central to feel it and to smell what it is like. There is a Cinnamon-like smell on the lower tracks. I do pay specific attention to details like that, the feel of the stones under your feet as you race along the tracks, the smell, the noise of a train on a distant track.
I wanted to go to Manhattan long before I arrived on a Greyhound bus coming through the rolling forests of New York State from Toronto on my first visit. I still remember a glimpse of sparkling grey skyscrapers as we came over a low ridge.
It was 1988 and Times Square was still an area where you might lose more than your wallet. I watched a preacher there fuming about racial equality and I felt a real unease on the streets. This was caused, I later found out, by the deprivation in that area, which had existed since the seventies and further back still. All that has changed now.
Coming from ultra low-rise Dublin, Manhattan was a city from another world. I’ve been enthralled in the New York Public library looking through the archive of old newspapers, been captivated by the majestic star studded main hall in Grand Central Terminal and stood in the wind at the top of the Empire State Building. That midtown part of Manhattan where all those sights are should be classified as a museum, our perhaps even one of the seven Man Made Wonders of the World.
I wanted to set a novel in Manhattan not just because of its beauty. Manhattan is also one of the centres of power in the world. Vast sums of money slosh around between its banks, and vast egos walk it streets. And everyone is on the hustle.
The Manhattan Puzzle emerged over a one year period. I wanted to change things from what had happened in The Istanbul and Jerusalem Puzzles and one way I did this was to tell much of the story through Isabel’s eyes. So far no one has said I did anything wrong in telling a story from a female perspective, but I am open to criticism, if you spot anything.
The Manhattan Puzzle sees Sean and Isabel (my characters from The Istanbul Puzzle and The Jerusalem Puzzle) finally reunited in Manhattan at the headquarters of one of the world’s largest banks, BXH, a fictional invention. There’s been some grisly murders. Then the plot takes a new twist. The contents of the book they found in The Istanbul Puzzle are revealed.
Another personal reason for writing this story was my disgust at the financial crisis that has brought many so low in the past few years. The final toll of the austerity programs caused by the financial crash, fueled by Wall Street, is still not told. I became interested in the myths and the beliefs of those who value money above everything and I read a lot about the endless greed that thrives in large banks.
The Manhattan Puzzle is about other things too though. For instance, what would you do if your partner didn’t come home one night? And what would you think if the police turned up at your door the next day looking for him?
Relationships are under stress everywhere, in some cases because of the demands placed on us by our jobs, but few of us will face what Isabel has to face that morning when Sean goes missing.
Be warned though, there is violence from the start in The Manhattan Puzzle. The opening has a woman inflicting it on a man. I’m tired of reading about men inflicting sexual violence on women. I think it’s time for the handcuffs to swop wrists. And they certainly do in The Manhattan Puzzle.
But don’t get me wrong. I love Manhattan. It’s a city in a snow globe. A city from a dream.
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