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In the Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty

March 3, 2014 2 comments

In the Morning I'll Be Gone, Adrian McKinty

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, 2014) finds Sean Duffy in the final volume of the trilogy set in The Troubles. He’s been through the wringer of being the wrong-shaped peg in a hole not of his own making. A Catholic serving in the police force is never going to win him friends on either side of the sectarian divide, but he shaded the odds in favour of being unacceptable to everyone by breaking all the rules in solving the cases he’s given and never being prepared to apologise for anything he does. At the end of the last book, he was demoted back to uniform. This puts him at the sharp end of policing and, when he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, he’s scapegoated and forced to resign the force. This leaves him at a loose end. The trigger for his official revival goes back to September 1983 when a few prisoners broke out of the notorious Maze Prison. It doesn’t take MI5 too long to link our hero with one of the escapees, Dermott McCann. They were at school together and have some “history” as the republican activist and theoretical urban terrorist. The Brits are not going to pass up the chance that the local man can do what they have so obviously failed to do. So Duffy is reinstated into Special Branch to talk with the families and relatives to see whether he can pick up any clues as to where Dermott has gone. At first there’s nothing but hostility, so Sean does what every respectable police officer would do. He beats up a heavy, threatens to shoot a drug pusher and pimp, burns down a newsagents, and rescues one of the McCann clan from a fate worse than death. He asks for no reward which may be why the IRA may later be less unsympathetically inclined towards him.

Adrian McKinty

Adrian McKinty

The first glimmer of light comes from Mary Fitzpatrick. Dermott married her second daughter and then divorced her when he was taken off into the Maze. A Faustian deal is made. Mary has never believed the death of Lizzie, her youngest daughter, was accidental. If Sean is able to prove to her satisfaction what happened that night, she will tell him where to find Dermott. There’s just one problem. Lizzie was found dead inside a pub that was not only locked but barred from the inside. The police who investigated this locked-room mystery, are convinced the death was an accident. After throwing out the last of the customers, Mary barred the doors, switched off the lights and climbed on top of the bar to change a light bulb. Unfortunately she fell, breaking her neck. The only three people who believe this is problematic are the elderly coroner who did the autopsy, her boyfriend and her mother.

This is a neat authorial trick of piling Pelion on Ossa. When Sean is given something impossible to do, the key to doing it must be the solution of an impossible crime. In this case, the problem is the complete absence of a motive. Although there are always ways in which a locked room situation can be set up, the real question is why anyone would have wanted to produce anything so complicated. The accidental death scenario is so much easier to understand and accept. As is required in books like this, there’s a long wait for the first hint of a motive to emerge, but even then it’s still not obvious why Lizzie should have been targeted. Believe me when I tell you the wait is well and truly worth it. The ultimate explanation of the how and the why of the death are outstanding.

This brings us to the weakest part of the book. By now we’re well into 1984 and those of you alert historians will recall this is the year in which the IRA planted a bomb in the Brighton hotel occupied by Margaret Thatcher. Writing this episode into the book is fair game, but the confrontation between Sean and Dermott is hopelessly contrived. Until I reached this part, I was lining this book up as unlikely to be beaten as the thriller of 2014. It’s such a shame. All the set-up in Northern Ireland and the subsequent investigation of the locked-room mystery is outstanding. Then we have to get the hackneyed ending.

When you put the three books together, The Troubles is one of the best thriller trilogies of the last decade. Despite my being less than enthused by the final confrontation, the quality of the prose remains pitch perfect and the unsentimental dark humour of the people and their political situation make In the Morning I’ll Be Gone a remarkable achievement in producing a plausible outcome for our hero. Incidentally, the next book is a standalone historical mystery called The Sun Is God.

For reviews of other books by Adrian McKinty, see:
The Cold Cold Ground
Falling Glass
I Hear the Sirens in the Street
The Sun Is God.

 

Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

I Hear the Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty

i-hear-the-sirens-in-the-street

The point of these reviews is to give you a piece of my mind. In doing so, I’m showing you who I am and how opinionated I can be. And this is done just by selecting words and stringing them together into sentences. Some may think this clever stuff but, as authorial voices go, it’s actually not a difficult trick to pull off. Authors who write fiction and create characters have a more difficult time. They have to strike a balance. On the one hand, they need to establish their own unique voices. That’s the major part of their brand, the way in which they appeal to their readers. Some write in short sentences. Even the idea of using words of more than two syllables (sorry) is anathema (only joking). Others think and write in a more complicated way. Their sentences go on for ever.

They don’t like short paragraphs, even for emphasis!

Over time, authors find the readers who like their voices. But that’s only half the battle. Fiction depends on presenting characters who act and speak in credible ways. Readers have to feel they know and understand the people they read about. They must want to identify with them and vicariously experience the situations described in the books.

Even when the novel is a first-person narrative, the protagonist’s voice is not the author’s voice. When we see a painting, we might suspect the identity of the artist but looking for the signature confirms it. In a novel, you hear the author’s voice through the voices of the characters he or she creates. The most successful books have a personality of their own. That’s what makes us fans. It carries us from one book to another even though the content in terms of characters and situations may be radically different.

I Hear the Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, 2013) Book Two: The Troubles Trilogy. A Detective Sean Duffy Novel is following the history of the day. Argentina invades the Falklands and the DeLorean factory continues to deliver those cars with the gull-wing doors that can fly owners into the future. We first find our hero, now promoted to Inspector, exchanging friendly fire with a watchman when they’re called out to an abandoned factory site to investigate a blood trail. Such are the challenges when plainclothes police officers respond to a call. After persuading the old soldier to stop shooting, they find a body, cut to fit into a suitcase. Even on a good day, this would be bad news. That it seems to be a foreigner adds to the burden of paperwork and probably means the crime will be kicked upstairs for politically more cautious officers to investigate. This coincides with a blip in Sean’s relationship with Laura so his normal routines are disrupted. Life can be a real bitch in a town called Malice. When the cadaver turns out to be American and the poison used to kill him is very obscure, the case looks challenging, but then the case in which the body was dumped turns up a clue. And the clue leads them to another death that’s in the record books as an IRA hit. . . Pursuing this trail gives us a delightful piece of investigative logic including the canonical dog that fails to bark.

Adrian McKinty getting ready to use his voice

Adrian McKinty getting ready to use his voice

It’s at this point that the book takes off from a police procedural into faintly surreal thriller territory as the girl on the motorcycle, the one you only see through a glass darkly, turns out to be a fan of Doctor Faustus. She’s a kind of agent provocateur, a challenge to the macho Duffy who takes such inordinate pride in his investigative skills. Perhaps if he’s less than a good detective, he shouldn’t be so cocksure of himself. In the end, of course, there are answers. But our hero has to pay a heavy price to get them. You might wonder why he would be so persistent. The answer is, as you might expect, slightly complicated. Some detectives are dogged. While this is sometimes thought an admirable quality, it tends to be a more boring trait and the resort of the unimaginative. Sean Duffy is a detective with flair. He’s blessed with an analytical mind and, even when he knows the risks, is not afraid to use it. Having been in close proximity to an exploding terrorist bomb, he believes his survival is a kind of investment in the future. Individuals cannot do much on their own, but if there were more like him, Northern Ireland would become a better place. It will probably never be an entirely normal place, but any improvement is to be welcomed.

Why have I used the word surreal to open the previous paragraph? The answer revolves around the culture of Northern Ireland. Over the decades, the flow of life in the province has been distorted. Those lucky enough to live in broadly stable and peaceful cultures view events in places like Belfast as somehow stepping outside the normal constraints of logic. They shake their heads at news from the province, refusing to accept this is normality for those who live in this place. On the other side of the divide, the people’s defence to the horrors around them is a black humour. When you are surrounded by pain and death, the only way to deal with it is by finding humour in the macabre and the denial of hope. It’s a kind of satirical submission to the inevitability of death.

It seems to me I Hear the Sirens in the Street is the final step in Adrian McKinty’s journey to perfect his author’s voice. This is a book of realism yet, because of the humour, it also captures the sectarian tensions in a way that makes them more bearable for the modern reader. I find McKinty’s voice particularly pleasing in this book. In earlier novels, I think he was trying to hard to be “amusing”. Here the humour is more organic, emerging with a more natural feel and making this book particularly satisfying. So I unhesitatingly recommend this second episode in Sean Duffy’s career. I find him fascinating as a character. It will be interesting to see, having survived two books, whether he can live to fight on at the end of the trilogy.

For reviews of other books by Adrian McKinty, see:
The Cold Cold Ground
Falling Glass
In the Morning I’ll Be Gone
The Sun Is God.

 

Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

October 17, 2012 1 comment

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.

Adrian McKinty at peace with the world

 

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.

 

For reviews of other books by Adrian McKinty, see:
Falling Glass
I Hear the Sirens in the Street
In the Morning I’ll Be Gone
The Sun Is God.

 

Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

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