Books: Era of The General exposed with real authenticity
Crime: Snapshots Michael O'Higgins, New Island Books, tpbk, 313 pages, €14.99
The verdict on the first novel from the leading Senior Counsel Michael O'Higgins
Michael O'Higgins is a man of considerable talents. He started out as a journalist for Magill and Hot Press, writing on crime and Northern Ireland. He published a lengthy profile of well-known criminal Martin Cahill ("The General"), based on extensive interviews. Called to the Bar in 1988, he became a Senior Counsel in 2000 and is now one of Ireland's top barristers. In recent years he has appeared as defence counsel for John Gilligan, Michael McKevitt in connection with the Omagh bombing and former chairman of Anglo Irish Bank Seán FitzPatrick. He was also lead counsel in the prosecution and conviction of Limerick gangster Wayne Dundon.
Despite his busy legal career, he has retained his interest in writing and has twice won Hennessy awards for his short stories. He has now produced his first novel, Snapshots, distilling in it elements from his lengthy experience as a criminal lawyer.
It is Dublin in the early 1980s - a different world. It is the Ireland of the IRA hunger strikes and the public debate over abortion and whether Kerry might win five in a row.
It is also one where, for the first time, Ireland is encountering a serious drugs problem and the rise of organised crime. There is the added worry that the Provos, their support massively boosted by the hunger strikes, are becoming active in Dublin working-class areas, even cooperating with the local criminal gangs. The top brass in the gardaí are worried.
The most prominent gangster is Christy Clarke from the North Inner City, a murderer who escaped prosecution on a technicality and who is notorious for his ruthless attitude, meticulous preparation and planning which has so far enabled him to evade justice. At home he's a wife-beater and a boozer with his soft side reserved for his racing pigeons.
In dogged pursuit of Clarke is Detective Sergeant Dick Roche, frustrated at Clarke's ability to evade justice and determined to be there when he finally slips up.
Clarke's 12-year-old son Wayne has a talent for music and is taken under the wing of the local curate, Fr Brendan. Fr Brendan appears clean cut and above reproach and is chosen to be part of the team leading the anti-abortion campaign. In fact Brendan is anything but and is leading a double life, with potentially explosive consequences if revealed. Yet it is in the course of his normal pastoral duties that he unwittingly fingers a prison officer for retaliation by the IRA, acting through Christy Clarke. The brutal attack which follows triggers events involving all four principals.
The book is a page-turner and has everything one might expect given the author: allegations of garda brutality, tip-offs from informers, intimidation of witnesses, cross questioning of suspects and courtroom drama (and comedy) in abundance, all described in terms that ring of authenticity. The courtroom scenes involving a clever and resourceful defendant are particularly realistic. The difficulties of actually nailing a major criminal are pointed up even if, as the author notes, "a judge handing down sentence to a man with an endless stream of road traffic convictions wasn't long reading between the lines." The denouement is both dramatic and unexpected.
Perhaps the ultimate accolade for authenticity is the description once given by the CIA of a book about its activities as "a novel but not fiction". This gritty thriller about the Dublin crime scene in the 1980s is in this mould.
Sean Farrell is a retired Irish Ambassador