Thursday 18 January 2018

Review: Thrillers: The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway

Macmillan, €14.99,
pbk, 304 pages
Available withfree P&P onwww.kennys.ie or bycalling 091 709350

Married with four young children, Brian McGilloway teaches English in St Columb's College in his home city of Derry where he is the school's Head of English.

Somehow, in between these taxing everyday commitments, he has managed to create an acclaimed series of crime novels set in the uneasy borderlands between Co Donegal and Co Tyrone.

They all feature a compassionate and moral Garda Inspector called Ben Devlin, who is often frustrated by his superior's willingness to do anything to avoid making contentious decisions.

The series, which began in 2007 with the publication of Borderlands, has not only garnered hatfuls of industry awards, but has also become a real commercial success.

The previous stories in the series have all focused on major social problems existing in Northern Ireland. In Borderlands it was drugs, while in Gallows Lane it was the porous border that allows convicted felons to flit from one jurisdiction to the other.

The plight of illegal immigrants forced into modern-day slavery and paramilitary vigilantism, or "community activism", have been tackled in subsequent books.

The focus of The Nameless Dead, the fifth Ben Devlin investigation, is the still hugely sensitive issue of the 'Disappeared' in Northern Ireland, those unfortunate people abducted, killed and buried in secret graves by republican paramilitaries during the Troubles. This fictional story could be taken from this year's headlines.

Declan Cleary had been missing since November 1976. His body has never been found, but everyone has always believed he was killed by the IRA for supposedly informing on a friend.

The Commission for Location of Victims' Remains are tipped off that he is buried on a small island straddling the border in the middle of the River Foyle, but the first skeleton unearthed by the commission's bulldozers is that of an infant, and it doesn't look like a death by natural causes.

However, the commission's strict terms of reference specifically state that any evidence it discovers cannot lead to criminal prosecutions, so Ben Devlin, a compassionate and decent man, is forbidden to investigate the infant's death as murder.

Under the rules he can't even have the remains forensically examined.

While understandably reluctant to do anything to fan the embers of Northern Ireland's recent violent past, Devlin cannot in conscience let a murderer go unpunished, especially as more infant remains are unearthed.

But Devlin is, in fact, as far removed from the average it-must-be-done-by-the-book cop as can be imagined, so he sets about discovering the truth in a round-about way.

His surreptitious investigations earn him the considerable ire of many of his superiors as well as the dangerous attention of criminal and former terrorist connections that would prefer that the past, infant and adult, remains buried.

Not only is his job at risk, but the very lives of all those he holds dear are suddenly on the line.

This is a taut and beautifully written mystery story deeply rooted in the uneasy, claustrophobic border counties of Northern Ireland where on a daily basis the troubled past impinges on the present.

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