Posts Tagged ‘The Troubles’

An interview with Adrian McKinty

October 29, 2012 4 comments

I’d like to start by thanking you for agreeing to answer a few questions about your latest work. It’s been interesting and stimulating to exchange ideas with you. First, a personal question. Like me, you’ve left your home turf for greener pastures elsewhere. Why have you made your home abroad?

That’s an easy one. I met a girl at college and I followed her to New York. It was a crazy, romantic notion because I had no job or any prospects and for my first three years in America I worked as an illegal in bars and various bookshops and at the odd construction site. It was a really happy time though. Leah and I were living on 50 dollars a week in a frightening apartment in ungentrified Harlem, but I was soaking up amazing material every minute of every day: crackheads and car thieves and cops and robbers. . . When I went to write Dead I Well May Be, it was very much a Speak Memory situation: I just let that stuff pour out of me.

In Falling Glass, your hero is one of the Pavee — a man with membership of a moving family. It’s a cultural allegiance and not tied to a single place. Does this also reflect your own view of the world?

I think so yes. Was it Auden who said that specious thing about betraying his country before his friends? Well I wouldn’t betray either. And I have a lot of countries now that I feel attached to: Ireland, England, Israel, America, Australia. I’ve got roots and friendships and deep memories in all those places. I’ve lived in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coventry, Leamington Spa, London, Oxford, New York, Boston, Jerusalem, Denver, Melbourne and now Seattle. My allegiances are all mixed up. Of course I still go for Ireland in the rugby and Liverpool FC in the EPL. That will never change.

In Falling Glass, the hero becomes a defender of the weak and oppressed, prepared to use violence to ensure the safety of others. This would not be necessary if society had a law enforcement process that did not implicitly protect people of status — ironically a higher-profile issue today because of the furore over the apparently untouchable status of Jimmy Savile.

I can’t say I was surprised by either the Jimmy Savile or Lance Armstrong scandals. I think the rich and powerful get away with much much more than we will ever know. Truth is always stranger and more perverse than fiction. If a writer were to make up the Savile story it would be labelled ‘ridiculous’ by every editor in the business and not get published. Fiction writers need to work harder to catch up with reality it seems to me.

In the traditional British crime novel, the appearance of the body is always a shock to the small community on display, i.e. there’s an immediate identification of this as a crime scene where there’s been a breakdown in law and order. But Northern Ireland was a permanent crime scene for decades with an inevitable overlap between policing, politics and the terrorists. In such a society, what makes a good policeman?

In England, certainly in rural England, there are very few murders so it should be a shock. I remember the three years I was at Oxford there wasn’t a single murder anywhere in Oxfordshire, but on Inspector Morse (which was filming and playing at the same time) there was usually one, or quite often two or three, in a week. There was a large disconnect between reality and TV reality. In Northern Ireland in the late seventies and early eighties there was too much reality. Certainly too much for impressionable kids. I remember being stuck with my mother in central Belfast the night the Co-op was firebombed. I remember taking my American girlfriend (now wife) to the cinema and coming out to find the city on fire and under the control of masked paramilitaries who had set up burning tyre checkpoints everywhere. I remember the week the SAS assassinated an IRA hit team in Gibraltar and we watched live on TV as a mad man killed three mourners with hand grenades at the funeral; and just two days after that, two off-duty Signals corporals were lynched live in front of our eyes. Stuff like that went on all the time. You never get immune to it, but you do get numb, and I have to say that, in Belfast, the response was often black, very black, humour, some of which I’ve tried to capture in my books. I should emphasise that because I remember as a kid being surrounded by very dour sarcastic grown-ups with a very dry sense of humour. There was also a very strong sense of community in our housing estate that I miss now that I live in middle class suburbia. As kids we could walk into any house we wanted and have dinner there or borrow a book or just sit down with the family and play Monopoly or watch TV. And it was also paradoxically a time of great innocence too. We were always outside playing football or running up into the fields. Yes there was a civil war going on five miles away in Belfast, but we felt safe and loved and happy.

If the police officer is on the side of right, he or she will be pressured to ignore the real perpetrator, or to pin the crime on a false suspect.

So often those attempts at pinning evidence on a person the cops knew was the guilty party backfired because they weren’t guilty at all. In Northern Ireland this happened all the time as did jury tampering. In fact the latter got so bad that juries were abolished for all paramilitary cases and, instead, Continental-style, three judge courts were introduced.

In both Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground, the hero becomes a vigilante. Do you see the search for justice as personal redemption?

It may be an attempt at personal redemption but. . . The temptation to take justice into your hands is so strong that you have to be incredibly strong to resist it. It’s interesting that until very recently in human history murder was always taken care of by the victim’s relatives. Police forces have only been around for a century and a bit, but murder has been around for as long as humans have been walking the plains of Africa. In Ulster and places where Ulster people emigrated to (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, etc.) this tradition still lingers. The police are distrusted and kin are the ones who mete out natural justice.

Ah, but you’ve changed your mind. The heroes in Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground are not family. In Fifty Grand, your heroine is both a cop and family. Which view do you prefer: the blood feud or the dispassionate enforcer?

Oh I prefer to let the police do the solving and the bringing of justice. I wish everyone did but they don’t, at least not in places where there the idea of blood feud is still engrained in the culture. The book to read about this is Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer: the section on the folkways of Ulster immigrants to America is eye opening.

The PSNI wants access to interviews given to the Boston College/Belfast Project by former IRA Old Bailey bomber Dolours Price. They claim Price gives a detailed account of how McConville was targeted, abducted from her 10 children, driven across the border, murdered and buried in secret late in 1972. What do you think of such work in an academic context?

It’s a very interesting case. It’s common knowledge in Belfast who gave the order to abduct Mrs McConville. Everyone knows who Delours Price is talking about but, setting aside a suit for libel, naming the man might jeopardize the entire Northern Ireland Peace Process because he is such an important and prominent figure in Republican circles. Once again I feel that Northern Ireland missed a trick by not having a South African style Truth Commission. That would have given a blanket amnesty to everyone involved in a Troubles offence who came forward and told the truth about what happened in the dark days of the seventies and eighties.

I’m not sure South Africa is a better country because it went through a “truth” process. More to the point, I don’t think anyone actively involved in the Troubles on any of the “sides” would have wanted to be honest about what they did.

Perhaps you’re right but at least South Africa drew a line under the whole process. In Northern Ireland these old cases are still lingering, are still a wound that hurts.

For reviews of the excellent books mentioned in this interview, see:
The Cold Cold Ground
Falling Glass
The Sun Is God

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.


Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty

August 27, 2012 3 comments

When I’m reading, I tend to play with various similes and metaphors to capture the immediate experience. This is not to deny the text my full concentration. I always respect the words. But it’s a kind of background monitoring process which was rather more active than usual while reading Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail, 2011). There’s a rather heightened style at work here that’s like watching the start of a fireworks display when, every now and then, one of these big rockets shoots up and lets go a hail of shells, each one exploding with colours on their way down. There are some wonderful lines where the idea takes off and the elegance of the prose execution just lights up the sky. Unfortunately, in the early chapters, not that much is happening so this is a triumph of style over substance. I’m not denying interest in watching our hero at work or then going through a recruiting interview, but it’s all a little like treading water when you’re hoping the hero will set off to swim the Channel. To get things moving, it would have been credible for our man to be recommended for the job and sent the necessary paperwork by courier. What we actually read has a sense of padding with literary pyrotechnics to distract us. Unfortunately, after a while, there are so many rockets exploding, it gets a bit tiring on the eyeballs and eardrums.


The novel itself is almost a stand-alone in that it only ties in with other books by Adrian McKinty through the series character Michael Forsyth who appears, mostly, as a telephone voice. This means we’re off and running with Killian, an Irish Tinker with the gift of the gab who prefers to talk his way out of danger and smooth over troubles. This time, the commission is find the wife of a rich businessman who’s run off with the two children in one of these acrimonious custody disputes. It’s obviously suspicious he’s being offered such a large finder’s fee but, when the “chase” begins, it’s hard to see the catch.

Adrian McKinty finding the middle ground


I’m wholly unconvinced by the heavy artillery sent after Killian. The initial brief, as I understand it, is that he follows Killian until the missing wife and children are found, and then he kills the wife (and, if necessary, Killian) and brings back the laptop. Ah, yes, the laptop, something the rich man failed to mention to Killian. As for the traumatised children, they can be collected by the police and social services from the probable scene of carnage. Their father can then collect them through the courts. The professional killer doesn’t seem the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer, so his physical attack on Killian feels premature. There’s no reason for him to believe he’ll be able to track down the wife from the information he acquires. However, as a plot device, it certainly does enliven the proceedings and gives Killian an incentive to rescue the situation. And this confirms the more general impression about the plot dynamics that, after a gentle ramp-up over the first third of the book, the narrative then takes off down an unexpected hill on the other side. I suppose, pursuing my similes, it’s like one of these old-school roller coasters that slowly winches the paying customers up the first peak until the release and the kinetic energy is sufficient to take them through to the end of the ride without stopping.


This is a book rooted in the history of a partitioned Ireland both in more general cultural terms by making Killian a Tinker, but also by making The Troubles an integral part of the book. Of course any book that dares trespass into that minefield is inviting a prejudiced reaction. If Adrian McKinty makes the book balanced in its coverage of the different warring factions, he’ll be accused of dumbing down and simplifying. If he writes anything even vaguely pro-terrorist or pro-British, then he’ll be called reactionary and a propagandist. In this respect, McKinty does rather well by diverting attention away from navel-gazing and introducing an uninvolved third party. The hired killer has no relevant political or religious connection to the Irish conflict. He’s had troubles of his own to contend with. And Killian is a Tinker and so also despised by all factions.


At its heart, Falling Glass is a story about loyalty, conscience and guilt. While we can’t separate Northern Ireland from The Troubles, we can ask neutral questions about the aftermath when the worst of the violence has subsided. This is not to sweep the low levels of continuing violence under the carpet, but simply to see it in a different socio-political context following “power-sharing”. This book shows us many different shades of individual from young men learning how a balance is being struck between the use of force and the art of persuasion, to old hands who have no compunction about the resort to violence when it’s expedient. But more than anything, we’re asked to consider whether any issue transcends the religious conflict. For example, is paedophilia a greater or lesser problem when priests belonging to the Catholic Church have been involved? It seems the Church itself and the An Garda SÌoch·na (the Irish police) believed it more important to cover-up the problem to protect reputations than to protect vulnerable children. In today’s climate of opinion, it should be a matter of conscience to protect the young against abuse and all those responsible should be brought to justice regardless of their former status. Yet such idealism doesn’t always work in a culture mired in the past. It may well be that, for all the political lip-service paid to democracy and positive programs to reduce levels of discrimination, some of the guilty may still enjoy immunity for past sins.


There’s some violence on display but, with one exception, it’s not gratuitous. Taken overall, Falling Glass is a thriller built like a roller coaster ride, full of excitement captured in electric prose.


For reviews of other books by Adrian McKinty, see
The Cold Cold Ground
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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