This is the third Sean Duffy novel I’ve read recently, and I really wish I’d read them in order, because Duffy clearly has ups and downs in his love life and career and his personality definitely evolves, but reading them out of order muddles that progression so one day I’ll go back and read them again, in the right order.
Yes, I WILL READ THEM AGAIN. Adrian McKinty is that good.
Each one is a stand-alone in terms of the police investigation, and the investigations are quality in terms of plotting, twists and turns, high-level involvement, betrayals etc and exciting denouement, but that is not why they are great.
They depict a dark period in history more effectively than any other book I’ve ever read, and make that experience of living in Northern Ireland during what was euphemistically known as the troubles, and was in fact a bitter and violent civil war, come alive in the scariest possible way. To live always with the knowledge that you can be shot at the wheel of your tractor, that every morning there could be a bomb under your car, that there is never never a real chance to be off duty because people out there are really out to get you… the sheer stress must have been unbelievable. The number of Catholics in the UDR is a disgrace, Sean contemplates at one point, less than 5% - but then, the IRA have promised that any Catholic who joins will be targeted first, so that’s one hefty disincentive. Above and beyond the fact many UDR members will be dyed in the wool orangemen.
The guns, the violence, the graffiti, the extreme poverty and despair, the dismal weather, the barefoot kids pointing at him (a Catholic police officer – so something of an anomaly), calling out “bang bang, you’re dead” –knowing that this is what kids learn, it’s real, it’s what people in their community are doing – all paints a devastating picture of grim awfulness.
Then contrast this with a kind of dour and bitter wit which is often laugh-out-loud funny: Sean’s conversations with his rebellious constables when they won’t get in the dumpster, his boss’s moods and rants in between puzzling over the cryptic crossword clues, the bigotry and misplaced religious fervour of so many people (hilarious snippets from the radio), the sheer incompetence of the authorities which, though it can have terrible consequences, is also darkly funny. And integral to the humour are the unique, distinctive Irish voices and vernacular.
The stories are basically a depiction of what a very stubborn, tough, humanistic and decent guy might have ended up doing when trying to work inside an almost impossibly bigoted, divided, and hate-filled country. Sean wants to make his country better, but back then no one really believed it was going to happen; they’d given up hope that things could ever change.
I don’t read these books for the investigations, though obviously the murders etc are necessary to drive the plot along. But I read them more for insight into the culture of Northern Ireland at this especially grim time: it’s kind of like world-building, only this world was real. And Adrian McKinty does it very, very well. Plus the wit and characters and human relationships do, somehow, offer a light even in this very dark place.