By Frank O’Shea
My first contact with Adrian McKinty was his 2012 book The Cold Cold Ground. It was set against the background of the IRA hunger strikes of the early 1980s and introduced us to Sean Duffy, at that time a detective sergeant in Carrickfergus CID. It is set in the days of beepers and faxes and dial phones and the tendency of police to use threats as a method of getting information.
That he is a Catholic means that his superiors are unsure of him and that he is as much an outsider on the Gerry Adams side of his society as on the Ian Paisley side. He is investigating the murders of homosexual men at a time when that style of life was criminal.
The book has one of those little gems that you come to expect in a McKinty book: he describes the local whiskey as ‘tasting of salt, sea, rain, wind and the Old Testament.’
Because of his work solving that case, Duffy has been given a Queen’s medal and promoted to Inspector in his next book, I Hear the Sirens in the Street. It is still the early eighties, but the background is the saga of John de Lorean and the way he was able to beat a charge of drug smuggling because of entrapment by the FBI.
As well as his normal troubles with his own superiors, Duffy has to deal here with Special Branch, MI5/6, the UDR (not to be confused – too much – with the UDA), British army intelligence and the US consulate in Belfast. And the book has my favourite McKinty-ism: Duffy combines with the local UDA leader Cameron to quiet a local mob intent on burning out a young African student whom they accuse of taking their jobs. ‘I like you, Duffy, Cameron says after things have settled down, we’ll kill you last.’
In The Morning I’ll Be Gone has Duffy’s superiors losing patience with him and first demoting him back to a beat cop and finally kicking him out of the force altogether. However, he is brought back and restored to his old rank of Inspector at the behest of a mysterious MI5 agent who wants him to find an escaped IRA commander whose sister-in-law has been killed. We are now in 1984 and the action ends with the bombs that almost killed Mrs Thatcher at the Tory conference in Brighton.
In his next book, Gun Street Girl, Duffy’s life seems to be spiraling out of control. There is his drinking – anyone who abuses Lagavulin by adding it to his tea has to be in need of help – and his progress from hash to harder drugs. To add to his discomfort, his love life is reduced to trying to shift at a church dance He is investigating the murder of an old couple and the later apparent suicide of their son. This is set against the background of the Contra crisis in America and the early attempts at what would be the Good Friday Agreement in Ulster.
Writers of detective stories have a liking for murder in a sealed room locked from the inside and with no apparent way out. That was the basis of the murder in the Morning book above and is also the focus of his 2016 book Rain Dogs. The sealed room is replaced by Carrickfergus castle from which a young woman is assumed to have jumped to her death. This is in some ways the least satisfactory of his stories, but McKinty is back to his absolute best in his latest book Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.
At this stage, Duffy is making an effort to reform his lifestyle. He has cut back on smoking and on his fondness for vodka gimlets in a pint glass, but the stash of Moroccan blue is still in his garage. He is in a relationship with a young woman who is finishing her Masters in English and they have a daughter that he dotes on. As the story opens, they are in Donegal visiting his family. He is saved from having to accompany his father on a three-day pilgrimage to Lough Derg by a murder back at his station in Carrickfergus, the first in a year.
The action is set in 1988, and unlike most of his other work, the two warring factions of the time – UDA/UVF on one side and IRA on the other – are involved in the story. The story takes place against the background of the killing of three IRA volunteers in Gibraltar and the troubles at the subsequent funerals. It is a credit to the author that he manages to write a story with such a backdrop without straying into the politics of the time.
At one stage in Derry, he is being interrogated by a man with a high-pitched voice who is called ****** **********. Count those asterisks and ask yourself whether they may represent a Derry IRA leader of that time, subsequently reformed and recently deceased.
The writing is crisp and the treatment of routine police work is as good as you will find anywhere. Again, you are cheered by the many light touches. When he returns to Carrickfergus, he finds the murder scene in complete disarray, just a dead body in front of a house, surrounded by a crowd, without a peeler in sight.
I could almost smell the stench of cheap ciggies, unwashed armpits, solvents, lighter fluid and Special Brew. They were mostly unemployed young men who had been drawn away from wanking over page three by a murder on their doorsteps.
In the same chapter, Duffy and his sergeant, the dour but dependent McCrabban interview the wife of the murder victim. She happens to be from Bulgaria.
Crabbie and I tried a few questions but she appeared to have only a few stock phrases in English. ‘You fucking shit … Six pack of beer … Move your arse, grandma … Your clothes shite’ which were probably enough to get you through six months of life in Northern Ireland but wouldn’t really do in a murder inquiry.
The book takes its title, as all these books do, from a song by Tom Waits. It is a title which is particularly apt here, because the problems which Duffy has with authority are again a feature of the story. At one stage, the police doctor tells him that cutting down to half a pack of Marlboro a day does not really constitute meaningful progress, and warns him that if his current drug numbers are repeated in his next blood test, he will be on permanent desk duty.
As the story ends, he decides to sell his house in the UDA-controlled estate where he has an uneasy relationship with the paramilitaries and he buys a cottage across the North Channel in Scotland, a mere two hours sailing from Larne. We will have to wait to see whether this will be the end of his adventures in Ulster.
Police at the Station is a completely satisfying read, in my view the author’s best. Whether you want a standard police procedural or a story of a man trying to turn his life around as he moves into middle age, it ticks all the boxes. The writing is enlivened by quotations from Yeats, Heaney or Louis MacNeice – Duffy is the kind of character who gives the impression that learning lies easily on the Irish. And running through it all there is the difficulty of leading a normal life in an inward-looking society like Norn Iron thirty years ago.