The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty
I need to start off this review with a bold statement of opinion. The majority of attempts to write historical mysteries are failures because the authors don’t strike the right balance between the history and the mystery, i.e. either there’s too much explanatory detail of the context or the nature of the mystery doesn’t fit the historical context. That’s not to say murder is inevitably an anachronism, but the way in which the killings are investigated in these books almost always is. If you go back more than a century, people were not generally attuned to thinking about law enforcement so, even when groups like the Bow Street Runners did get started, they were really just a peace-keeping operation, dealing with the obvious outbreaks of violence and “crimes” against the property of the rich. There were no detectives as we understand the word today.
In a way, I suppose I’m bending the genre rules slightly by applying the historical label to The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty, the first in The Troubles Trilogy and A Detective Sean Duffy Novel (Seventh Street Books, 2012). This is set in May, 1981 and, by most standards, not long enough ago to be classified as history. Yet I suspect many in my generation see thirty years as a step into a different world in which we can begin to gain more objectivity about the times we lived through. For myself, I was in France for a part of the time the OAS was running its postcolonial plastique campaign in restaurants and, of course, I lived through the IRA mainland bombing — in 1974, I was in a different Birmingham pub the night twenty-one people were killed in two explosions. Experience of this type gives me a different perspective on terrorism and sadness that there’s still no long-term reconciliation between the communities in Northern Ireland. Belfast still has ninety-nine peace walls in place, physical entrenchment of the lack of forgiveness. But the walls and fences are just the outward sign. Many of the interfaces between the communities are not reinforced by physical barriers. The separations persist through sectarian distrust and fear. Put another way, separation has been normalised through the communities’ experience over time.
It’s therefore fascinating to read about the Belfast of thirty years ago as seen through the eyes of an author born in Carrickfergus. The town is about eleven miles from Belfast, but it had its share of problems. It was a not-unimportant paramilitary stronghold with both the UVF and UDA being present in numbers. As you will understand, there has to be a fair amount of detail given to explain the political and economic context both to younger readers and to those from different countries which may have had their own terrorist problems but would not know about those in Britain and Northern Ireland. This is the time of the Thatcher government with this year representing the ultimate in bread and circuses with the marriage of Charles and Diana drowning out the worst of the news of the hunger strikers in the H Blocks. Internationally, there was an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II which came as a shock (and not just to the Catholic community around the world). In deciding how much explanatory background to give, authors have to judge their market and, in today’s world of short attention spans, I think Adrian McKinty has got it right. The majority of readers for a book of this type would not remember this time with any degree of accuracy. The level of explanation does not overly intrude into the flow of the narrative.
So let’s think about Sean Duffy, the hero of this story. He’s a man caught in the middle as a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant police force. Or perhaps he’s more an anti-hero as, early on, he pimps a Land Rover’s bonnet for one-hundred pounds and routinely drinks potentially excessive amounts of alcohol. Obviously, there’s no end to his depravity. Worse, he’s something of a fish out of water as an academic of considerable promise, inspired to join law enforcement by narrowly avoiding death in a pub bombing. I’ve known men like him in the English force and, for the most part, their experience was very unhappy. There’s an amazing amount of institutionalised prejudice against anyone who’s different — this includes a higher level of knowledge and the brain power to apply it. In this case, Sean Duffy starts off with what may or may not be a homosexual hate crime. For the record, in Dudgeon v the UK (1982), the European Court of Human Rights began the process of moving the law in all Member States against the criminalisation of male and female homosexuality. But at the time this novel is set, homosexuality was still a crime in Northern Ireland. As an aside, First Minister Peter Robinson leads today’s DUP which is still on record as believing homosexuality is morally wrong, i.e. homophobic attitudes have not changed significantly. So the investigation in 1981 is always going to be problematic because of the sectarian violence, the life-threatening level of prejudice against Catholic members of the police force, and the fact few homosexuals are likely to co-operate since any admissions they make could expose them to informal sanctions in the community and/or criminal prosecution. And as if this isn’t enough for the overstretched police, a girl is found hanging in the nearby woods.
Although the format is different, this book reminds me in spirit of the early David Audley novels by Anthony Price (that’s early in the date of publication and not the ultimate chronology of the novels). Both heroes are intellectual and, at first, a little naive. In the best bull-in-a-china-shop style, they charge around the landscape, beating the grass to see how many snakes crawl out. Of course, in their parts of the world, there are a vast number of snakes, but some are less poisonous than others. Indeed, surprisingly, some may actually turn out to be quite human once you get to know them. Later, our heroes become acclimatised and understand more of the ecology that supports snakes, rats and all the other animals in the food chain. That makes both heroes more dangerous. Price set his novels in the closing years of the Cold War. Adrian McKinty locates his in The Troubles. Although the scale is different, both conflicts depend on entrenched antagonism and it’s difficult for anyone to stand in whatever passes for the middle ground.
Put all this together and you’ve got an irresistible blend of police procedural, conventional thriller, and political thriller. I’m fascinated to see so many names of famous people floating around in the mix. I suppose, in historical fiction, it’s perfectly all right to talk about what people might have done thirty years ago. In this, I note the parallel to Freddie Scappaticci who’s alleged to have been a highly placed double agent in the IRA. As a result, The Cold Cold Ground is an outstanding read. What makes it special is not only the story which is really ingenious, but also the prose which is filled with delightful local colour and not a little wit. There are some genuinely memorable metaphors and similes to savour as you read. As a final and wholly irrelevant thought, under most circumstances, no animals are killed during the writing of a book but this author disposes of a red squirrel — an animal on the endangered list.
Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.