Entertainment Books

Friday 17 January 2020

Review: The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

Serpent's Tail, £12.99

Adrian McKinty

The Hunger Strikes and subsequent rioting after the death of Bobby Sands in 1981 have been pored over by academics and psychologists, but the arts seemed to lag when it came to making a vocal examination.

Steve McQueen's 2008 film Hunger was a landmark, asking many questions about the mucky fatalism of the strikers but also how they were driven there. The Cold, Cold Ground is the twelfth novel by migrant Irish writer Adrian McKinty, and it uses that chapter of the Troubles as a backdrop, quickening an otherwise genre work into something that sizzles with ambient dread.

McKinty's other chief tool is Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy. A finely hewn protagonist, Duffy is a Catholic copper living in a Protestant Carrickfergus neighbourhood. Catholic RUC officers never went down particularly favourably with either side of the sectarian divide, and if Duffy seems analytical and highly aware of his surroundings, it's because he has to be.

He is witty, cultured and erudite, but our author understands that character flaws are needed in the DNA of any good crime hero. Duffy is thus a functioning alcoholic and weed smoker, is prone to objectifying the women he encounters and shows one or two moments of bemusing insecurity. If you want your reader to take a character to heart, this is how to do it.

When the bodies of two homosexuals turn up with little clues left near their cadavers, Duffy is suspicious. A serial killer operating in Troubles-ravaged Belfast? You don't bring an apple to an orchard. It is "too gothic for Ulster" and besides, if you happened to find that you were indeed a psychopath, there was a range of tooled-up zealots in the "alphabet soup" of paramilitaries to fall in with. Meanwhile, his gut is also telling him that the apparent suicide of the missing wife of a hunger striker is somehow connected to all this.

Red herring cameos are made by Gerry Adams and homophobic Unionist firebrand George Seawright. Duffy's brain itches furiously. He over-thinks the clues and traces left by the killer, which disrupts that part of us that wants to work it out for ourselves. Sometimes a blunt wallop can work just as well as an explosion where finales are concerned. In the perversely hate-filled era in which the tale is set, it is perhaps the only way McKinty could wind things up and still maintain his story's vital sense of place.

Tropes are tropes for good reason. The important crime-fiction ones are present and accounted for here -- a serial killer who purposely leaves clues, a cop who's on to him, procedural and forensic nitty-gritty. Yet McKinty can startle with bouts of lyrical scene-setting that could only come from the fingertips of someone who grew up in the environment. He tells us of "arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon... The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs intersecting with exacting surfaces. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife". He educates us about shopkeepers boarding-up their windows when a riot was due, or the ritual of paramilitaries leaving a silver 'Judas coin' by the corpse of a bumped-off informant. Your reviewer was born the year The Cold, Cold Ground (a Tom Waits' lyric, by the way) is set in, and such passages work better at painting a picture than any episode of Reeling In The Years.

McKinty had always intended for this to be the first part of a trilogy about Duffy. He has said that his flawed hero will go on to visit the 1984 Maze Prison escape, the US and the DeLorean car company. It's probably safe to say that Irish crime fiction's current purple patch won't be fading any time soon.

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