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No idyllic village life here as the locals plot revenge

'No one lives in Leaca anymore," begins Patrick McGinley's provocative novel, but even in 1948, the year in which the novel is set, Leaca was dying on its knees.

Scrubbed bare by sea and wind, gutted by emigration, the tiny Donegal village had always taken pride in its sense of community – until the day their venerable elder, Paddy Canty, is discovered strangled to death. When the gardaí fail to apprehend the killer, the men of the village take the law into their own hands.

Cold Spring, then, is framed as a revenge thriller, although it is considerably more complex than such novels tend to be. For one, the reader is as ignorant as to the identity and motive of the killer as are the villagers, which makes Cold Spring a pleasingly intricate blend of 'whodunit' and 'whydunit'.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, McGinley asks penetrating questions about the nature of justice, and the reader's complicity in creating fiction's illusion of justice, as the villagers plot to avenge their murdered neighbour.

McGinley's Bogmail (1978) is one of the few Irish crime novels to bear comparison with Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (1967), but Bogmail's whimsical and absurdist treatment of the genre has been replaced here with a gimlet-eyed obsession with truth and righteousness. Can murder ever be justified?

The novel's arc incorporates a kind of Socratic dialogue between the avengers' ringleader, Muriris, and the unbiddable Tom Barron, fleshing out the arguments with references to an Old Testament-style eye-for-an-eye retribution, the difficulties faced by the state-sanctioned executioner Albert Pierrepoint, folk memories of the murder of an absentee landlord's feckless agent, and a rather radical interpretation of Brehon law.

If Cold Spring is to some extent a novel of ideas and simultaneously a vigorous interrogation of the genre, it's also a lament of sorts, a paean to a time, place and people that no longer exist. The recently arrived Englishman Nick and his partner Sharon – a failing writer and successful artist, respectively – are our eyes and ears, reporting back on the hauntingly stark beauty of mountain, lake, bog and shore.

On one level, McGinley convincingly paints a portrait of a long-lost idyll derived from Rockwell Kent and John Hinde, but this particular vision of a quasi-mystical Ireland has been poisoned by insularity, history and hubris.

Don't be fooled by rural Donegal setting: the fatalistic tone is one of pure noir.

Declan Burke

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