A sadder, wiser Duffy is back on the trail in ultimate whodunit
Adrian McKinty has done it again. In the second episode of a promised trilogy on the exploits of Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman in the RUC at the height of the Northern Troubles, he maintains the tension, the sense of period and the quirks of character that made The Cold Cold Ground such a compelling read.
Having emerged from that adventure sadder, wiser and more cynical, with wounds to show and a Queen's Police Medal, he has gained promotion from sergeant to detective inspector.
It proves to be a short-lived distinction since his congenital insubordination and a chronic inability to give up the chase even when he has been taken off the case and the file closed leads, in the present instalment, to a reduction in rank and the humiliation of return to uniformed duty.
McKinty catches the atmosphere of the time with great accuracy, especially for a serving policeman living in the community, the sense of being under threat all the time, whether on or off duty, the daily look under the car for a bomb with a mercury tilt-switch, the heavy drinking and drug taking, and the wary relationship even, perhaps particularly, with colleagues.
There are too for the CID man the daily turf-wars with special branch and the mysterious interventions of army intelligence, who spirit suspects out of custody and destroy evidence.
At a time when the report on the murder of Pat Finucane and the release of the papers on DeLorean make the headlines, there is little need to question the verisimilitude of the fictional presentation.
The chase begins, on this occasion, with the discovery of a headless, limbless torso crammed into a battered travelling-trunk on waste ground near the site where an American adventurer John Zachary DeLorean is engaged in developing and building an exotic new car which is to cost the British taxpayer many millions of pounds.
From the unpromising start of a fragment of readable tattoo, Duffy and his team are able to identify the victim as a US army veteran who has been working for the federal drugs agency.
The subsequent investigation leads Duffy into the hostile and suspicious dereliction of Islandmagee, a couple of other apparently unrelated murders, an attractive and lonely widow and an eccentric landowner down on his luck.
It involves conflict with his superiors, with special branch and military intelligence and, more brutally, with the FBI and US treasury agents. He loses his pathologist girlfriend from the earlier episode, but not before she had identified and explained the toxicology of an obscure drug which could be obtained from a hothouse plant with an innocent name.
The story unfolds of drug-smuggling and tax-evasion, vain attempts by the government to provide jobs, and more successful ones by DeLorean to screw as much as possible out of the British Treasury before the inevitable collapse.
Duffy's bohemian lifestyle, his uneasy relationship with his loyalist paramilitary neighbours, his forays among the suspicious poteen-makers of Islandmagee and his preference for gathering information in the beds of the widow and an attractive American PA add spice to the narrative.
There are cameo appearances by Jack Hermon as chief constable and John DeLorean as conman in chief, and a picture of a sadder, wiser Duffy, reduced in rank and humbled in having to man a road-block in the middle of nowhere in the wake of a mass escape from the Maze Prison.
His search carries him to America (at his own expense and in his own time) and fairly rough handling from the authorities there. An odd case of urgently booking a direct flight from London to Boston on one day and then travelling Aer Lingus by Dublin and Shannon the next may be an example of devilish deviousness in covering his tracks. More prosaically it might just be a case of poor proof-reading.
Either way, it does nothing to lessen the tension or the tautness of the narrative, which proceeds at breakneck pace to a final denouement with a twist in the tale – the ultimate whodunit.
Even in the humiliation of road-block duty, there is a signpost for the next Duffy engagement. It should be worth waiting for.