Get your Irish on with crime-noir masterpiece


Adrian McKinty opens his new thriller at the onset of the hunger strikes in 1981 Belfast. The rage, dissent and blind self-interest of “the Troubles” are the perfect backdrop for this brutal noir masterpiece.

Bobby Sands is dying in Long Kesh. Police and rioters clash nightly in the streets. The economy is collapsing. And sectarian violence looms as the law of the land.

Sean Duffy is a young Catholic detective working for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s nearly all-Protestant police force. He’s educated, has an eclectic love of music and checks underneath his car every morning for mercury-tilt bombs.

A witness to the carnage of an IRA bombing, Duffy has turned his back on the cause and is determined to make his stand on the thin blue line. Assigned to the town of Carrickfergus, about 5 miles north of Belfast, Duffy has a caseload of primarily fraud and petty theft when he’s not on riot-suppression duty.

Called out in the middle of the night to investigate a body in an abandoned car, Duffy is thrust into a macabre murder investigation. At first, all signs point to an IRA hit. One of the victims’ hands has been cut off, the mark of a traitor. But the crime scene has other peculiarities and the postmortem suggests much darker motives.

A second body confirms that somebody is killing homosexuals, and Duffy finds himself investigating Ireland’s first-ever serial killer. As Duffy says, there’s no need for serial killers in Northern Ireland; sadists and psychopaths have plenty of opportunities to work out their kinks in paramilitary ranks.

At the same time, Duffy becomes preoccupied with the suicide of a young woman whose death seems to epitomize the Irish condition.

Against orders, he follows leads into the upper echelons of the Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary organizations. Considered a traitor by the Catholics and an outsider by the Proddies, Duffy finds himself asking questions that neither side wants answered.

This is McKinty’s 12th novel and the best book he has written since his 2004 breakout, “Dead I Well May Be,” the first in a trilogy featuring the reluctant yet highly efficient killer Michael Forsythe.

McKinty, who was born in Carrickfergus in the late 1960s, is one of the most underappreciated crime novelists working today. Although he has won several awards for his fiction, he hasn’t achieved the blockbuster status that is his due.

“The Cold Cold Ground” could change all that. It is the first in a trilogy (“The Troubles Trilogy”). The second book, “I Hear the Sirens in the Street,” was published to critical acclaim recently in Great Britain.

Unlike the Forsythe books, “The Cold Cold Ground” relies on time and place to provide an unalterable atmosphere of menace and melancholy. Belfast’s blasted streets, the sick ward inside the Maze prison, the polluted shores of the loch and the red-brick row houses of Protestant housing estates are all characters in this finely etched crime saga.

For all of its brutality, the book is subtle and nuanced. McKinty isn’t interested in broad brushstrokes that paint the British as bad guys and the Catholics as freedom fighters. Through Duffy, he observes the bloody hypocrisy of the IRA campaign and the venality of British policies.

Much of the book relies on actual events, albeit with historical revision. Real and fictional figures brush up against one another, and McKinty has no issue blurring their lines, including a notorious informer in the ranks of the IRA’s inner council known as Stakeknife. In real life, Stakeknife was linked to dozens of murders with no loyalist ties; many are believed to have been killed in an effort to protect the British mole’s identity.

McKinty revels in the contradictions of war: Sworn enemy factions setting aside differences in order to work out a heroin score; a society that shrugs daily at death but makes homosexuality a crime.

McKinty, who has written thrillers set in Colorado (“Hidden River,” 2004) and Cuba (“Fifty Grand,” 2009), is never better than when on his hometown turf. His prose is evocative but does not rely on the heavy stylization of other Irish crime writers such as Ken Bruen. Nor does he cloud his writing with internal brooding; his characters aren’t haunted by doubt and recrimination. This is more Declan Burke than Stuart Neville.

McKinty’s prose is straightforward but not without music. He captures people in the act of doing; drinking in pubs, laughing after sex, examining a crime scene, dying for a cause, killing for pleasure.

At the center of this is Duffy; the keen observer, the perfect protagonist. A righteous man who unwillingly takes his pursuit of justice into the realm of moral ambiguity.

Reach Anglen at Follow him on Facebook and twitter @robertanglen


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