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IRA man has to deal with new threats linked to murderous past

Crime: Terry Brankin has a Gun

Malachi O'Doherty

Merrion Press, paperback, 256 pages, €16.95

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Expert's eye: Malachi O'Doherty

Expert's eye: Malachi O'Doherty

Terry Brankin has a Gun by Malachi O'Doherty

Terry Brankin has a Gun by Malachi O'Doherty

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Expert's eye: Malachi O'Doherty

The title of Malachi O'Doherty's crime novel is admirably blunt, and suits this tough, grimy and sometimes brutal tale of crime and punishment in Northern Ireland, past and present.

Terry Brankin has a gun: he most certainly does, and what's more, he's willing to use it if needs must. Indeed, in his past as an IRA killer, he handled plenty of guns, and explosives, too.

Today he's a well-respected Belfast solicitor, his murderous past known only by a few; he was never convicted of violent offences, leaving Ireland in the early 1990s to lie low and then returning to study law in Queen's as a mature student, all on IRA orders. Even wife Kathleen, while aware that Terry was once involved, doesn't know all of his crimes - and certainly not the worst.

That, probably, was the Magheraloy bombing, when Terry killed Mr and Mrs Lavery and 10-year-old daughter Isobel, mistakenly thinking they were the RUC Chief Constable and his family. (Chillingly, his only regret about it, up to now, is that the wrong people were killed; the RUC man's wife and child he considered collateral damage).

Now a Holy Joe PSNI officer, Basil McKeague, is working cold cases and wants Terry to confess to Magheraloy. He also wants him to indict, as co-conspirator, one Dominic McGrath. This ex-Provo and key figure in the Peace Process is essentially a fictional amalgam of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness; his Republican Party is Sinn Féin in all but name. McGrath is now a smooth-talking, albeit intimidating, politician and "man of peace"; but back in the day, he gave the order for Magheraloy, and McKeague wants his blood.

Terry knows that if he confesses, under the bizarro-world protocols of the post-Peace Process justice system, the killing will be regarded as a political act and he'll serve no more than two years in prison. And he has no notion of selling out his former IRA comrades - but they don't seem too confident about that, because one night someone burns down several properties owned by the Brankins, including their own house.

After decades of lying dormant, under the façade of good suits and civility, the younger Terry re-emerges: violent, angry, forceful, fearless. He's determined to protect himself and Kathleen, and if that means starting to kill again, so be it. And he begins by retrieving a gun he used, years earlier, for punishment shootings of local miscreants…

Donegal native O'Doherty is a veteran journalist, in print and broadcasting, and author of four works of non-fiction, much of it about his strife and times as reporter during the Troubles. So he brings an expert's eye to bear on the background of his story; it's very informative, particularly about the lived, day-to-day feeling and textures of this nightmarish conflict which colonised news bulletins here in the Republic for years, but at the same time felt as if it was happening on another planet.

Happily, O'Doherty is a nice writer; as someone once put it, he's a journalist but doesn't write journalese. Terry Brankin has a Gun is well-told, skipping smartly and clearly from the present to several past timelines - Terry's post-IRA life in college, a period spent in limbo abroad, his earlier decision to join up, the ill-fated Magheraloy incident.

The thriller plotline is spare and periodically nerve-wracking, mixed in with broader themes of guilt, destiny, history and the possibility of redemption. In that sense, it reminded me of a very fine book by another Northern writer, Brian Moore's Vichy-themed The Statement.

And the main man is a plausible character: complex and real, not exactly a nice man but not without saving qualities. Importantly, O'Doherty also gives due airing to all sides of the Troubles, especially the victims and their families.

Isobel Lavery and her parents open the book and, in a way, close it out, too. Their ghosts hang over everything here, from the macrocosm of the Peace Process and a changing North, to the tiny, unknown spaces of Terry Brankin's own heart and soul.

Indo Review