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The Barbed-Wire Kiss

Pen Pals: An Appreciation
The Star-Ledger of Newark
May 16, 2003

By MARK DI IONNO
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

    "The Barbed-Wire Kiss" is Wallace Stroby's first book. "Death in Dublin" is the late Mark McGarrity's last.

    Stroby's book is set on the hard streets of Jersey Shore towns like Asbury Park and Long Branch, the streets tourists don't see from the beach. McGarrity's is set in the Ireland of poet's hearts.

    Stroby's prose, according to the Chicago Tribune, is "as sharp as a surgical instrument." The Washington Post once said McGarrity "writes with literary grace" and his "dialogue sings with an Irish lilt."

    As practitioners of their craft, the two writers - who met and became good friends while working in the features department of The Star-Ledger - couldn't be different.

    "The Barbed-Wire Kiss" has a bullet-straight plot line with looking-down-the-barrel tension: A hard-boiled, retired state trooper named Harry Rane tries to help a loser buddy get out of a jam with local, but very serious, drug-dealing hoods. The only catch is that the top hood's wife is Rane's old high-school flame, and you know what happens next.

    "Death in Dublin" is a historical trot through Ireland's complex religious turmoil, beginning with the ancient Druids vs. the Christians, and all the way up to the current Catholic-Protestant strife. At the heart of the plot is the kidnapping of Ireland's most sacred scriptures, The Book of Kells, from the Old Library at Trinity College. A terror group, the New Druids, threatens to burn the book if a $50 million ransom is not paid, but the case is not that simple, and Inspector Peter McGarr winds a roundabout way through Ireland's political structure before solving it.

    On the surface, these two new mysteries, and their author's writing styles, couldn't be more different. On the surface.

    For people who know the authors, the books are inextricably linked because of the friendship between the men.

    In 1999, as Stroby wrestled "The Barbed-Wire Kiss" into a final draft, McGarrity offered to help him get it published. For McGarrity, who died in a fall last July 4, navigating the waters of the publishing business was as second nature as the writing itself. He was prolific - he had published five novels under his own name and 16 Peter McGarr mysteries under the pen name Bartholomew Gill. For most of his adult life, McGarrity wrote novels full time. When he became a full-time newspaper reporter six years ago, he still maintained a full novel-writing schedule, waking up each morning at 4:30 to work on his books.

    "I admired his habits, but I couldn't emulate them," Stroby said. McGarrity picked up Stroby's draft and made a few suggestions. He also put Stroby in touch with his agent, who would eventually sell the book.

    One of the best things McGarrity did for Stroby was give him confidence in the development of his characters and plot. When several editors suggested Stroby cut an early scene, McGarrity said he should follow his gut and leave it in.

    "He said it gave the character a certain unpredictability, and he was right," Stroby said. "He was always very generous with advice."

    And praise.

    While Stroby's book is getting excellent reviews - the Washington Post called it "a scorching first novel" and Publishers Weekly called it a "dazzling debut" - McGarrity foreshadowed those sentiments in the jacket blurbs for Stroby's book, calling it "both a good novel and a thrilling mystery" and a "unique and stunning debut."

    McGarrity, no stranger to good reviews Booklist called "Death in Dublin" (William Morrow) "spectacularly suspenseful" and "a masterpiece" was secure enough in his own talent to credit others. When his "The Death of a Joyce Scholar" came in second to James Lee Burke's "Black Cherry Blues" in the Edgar Awards as top mystery in 1991, McGarrity told his agent, Robin Rue, "I was proud to lose to that guy."

    Now, in mystery circles, Stroby is being hailed as a major upcoming talent, while McGarrity is being mourned.

    "Every so often, a debut novel comes along that is so arresting and powerful you just know the author will go on to a fine career," a reviewer from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer wrote about Stroby.

    "The death of (McGarrity) deprives the mystery world of one of its most sensitive and talented practitioners," wrote the Kirkus reviewer.

    Another contrast, another similarity, another testament to friendship.

- Mark Di Ionno is assistant managing editor for local news at The Star-Ledger and the author of three books.




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