An opera-loving murderer is taunting baffled police, writes Maurice Hayes
Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, introduced by Adrian McKinty in the first of a trilogy of detective stories set in Northern Ireland in the middle of the Troubles, could well become a cult figure.
A Catholic member of the RUC (one of the 7pc) equally at risk of being murdered by the IRA for his profession and by loyalists for his religion, an Irish speaker from the Glens of Antrim, fluent in several languages, with a degree in psychology and an interest in opera, tempted to join the IRA after Bloody Sunday and propelled into the police by a pub bombing, courting a pathologist girlfriend among the corpses, he is a very unusual copper indeed.
McKinty has established a good track record in the genre and in his return to his native sod for he shows that he has not lost his touch or his eye for the bizarre and the macabre, or his ear for the Belfast accent and argot.
The plot has Duffy assigned to investigate what appears to be a serial killer of homosexuals who taunts the police by placing clues strewn with obscure references to operas, and the apparently unconnected suicide of the estranged wife of a hunger striker.
Set against a backdrop of riots in the middle of the 1981 hunger strikes and the death of Bobby Sands, McKinty creates a marvellous sense of time and place; an evocation of darkness and horror, of corruption and collusion, of the fraught life of a policeman, of the domination of areas by paramilitary groups at war with each other and with the British state but colluding on drugs and criminality, the immediacy of death and the cheapness of life.
Taken off the case when he stumbles on an IRA connection, warned off by Special Branch and army intelligence protective of their agents and informants, Duffy keeps doggedly on, defying the rules and risks to himself and his girlfriend until he secures a confession and a very rough sort of justice for the murders which turn out not to be homophobic, but an attempt by a mole to cover his tracks.
Real people walk in and out of the story.
There are a couple of nearly recognisable loyalist warlords, and a character based loosely on Freddie Scappaticci is central to the story, and the old chestnut of whether Gerry Adams might be Stakeknife.
In the speed of the action and the twists of the plot, small details do not always matter, but a few will grate with local readers.
In the main, though, he manages to catch the brooding atmosphere of the 1980s and to tell a ripping yarn at the same time.
There will be many readers waiting for the next adventure of the dashing and intrepid Sergeant Duffy.