Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Major conflicts such as the period known in Ireland as ‘the Troubles’ have impacts that last long after the ‘official’ conflict ends. And those effects can be felt in ways that people don’t anticipate. That’s what happens in Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead, the fifth in his Ben Devlin series. Let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today, and take a look at the way those effects play out.
The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains is charged with returning the bodies of those who disappeared during the early days of the Troubles to their families. Since the goal is to allow those families at least to bury their dead, there is a commitment not to investigate in these cases. People who know where one of ‘the Disappeared’ is buried can simply contact the commission with no fear of being identified or prosecuted.
Garda Ben Devlin’s ‘home base’ is in Lifford, close to the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. So he is tapped as liaison when the commission gets word that the body of Declan Cleary may be buried on Islandmore, an island in the River Foyle, just between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Cleary was said to have been murdered during the Troubles for informing against the IRA to the police. The dig team hasn’t been working very long when they discover something unexpected: the body of an infant. At first, it looks as though the baby might have been among many who died before their baptisms. Since by Church law, they couldn’t be buried on consecrated ground, their families often secretly buried them as close to Church property as possible. One of those burial sites is on Islandmore. But Devlin doesn’t think this is one of those infants. For one thing, the baby is buried on the wrong side of the island. For another, there are signs the child might have been murdered.
Devlin wants to investigate this death, but he’s told in no uncertain terms that no investigation will be permitted per the commission’s policy. In the first place, the infant died at about the same time as the Troubles were going on, so it’s not impossible that this death and Cleary’s disappearance might be connected. What’s more, the child’s body was discovered during a search for one of the Disappeared and so the death cannot be investigated. Still, Devlin doesn’t want to let it go. So he begins to ask as many questions as he can get away with asking.
In the meantime, he’s still working on the Cleary case, and contacts his former boss ‘Olly’ Costello. Costello gives Devlin some information on people who might be able to help not only on that case, but also on the case of the infant Devlin found. Then, Cleary’s son Sean is murdered. Then there’s another murder. It’s now clear that someone doesn’t want either Cleary’s death or that of the infant to be solved. In the end, though, Devlin and his team find out what happened to Cleary, and they uncover another secret from the past that still has repercussions.
One of the important elements in this novel is the impact on people of not knowing what happened to a loved one. That’s one reason the commission’s work is so important. At least the families involved have the peace of knowing what happened to the ones they lost, and of burying them properly. Here’s what Cleary’s former girlfriend (and Sean Cleary’s mother) Mary Harte Collins says about it:
‘You’re doing very good work…You don’t know how important it is. Thank you.’
It’s a way of moving on from the devastation of the Troubles.
Another element is the fragility of the current agreement. Just because the Troubles are over doesn’t mean everything is solved and everyone is happy. Here’s what one veteran of those times says:
‘I’m on me own, the Brits are still here and the Shinners are in government. The English want out ‘cos we’re costing them a f***ing mint, the south doesn’t want us cos they can’t even handle the twenty-six counties they do have.’
That said though, people are tired of death and bloodshed and don’t want to return to active fighting. The Northern Ireland/Republic border may not be the friendliest in the world, but both sides know all too well the cost of not trying to work things out.
People involved in these cases live on both sides of the border, and readers get a look at what modern life is like in that area. There are memories of war, but both sides co-operate in the search for Cleary’s remains. They also work together on other things. There’s commonality in the cultures too, despite the differences between them. What all of this means is that things often get done in a pragmatic, sometimes rule-bending way. It’s just easier than going through bureaucratic layers.
And that’s the kind of person Ben Devlin is. The story is told from his perspective, so his character is important. He is a good cop, both in the sense of being skilled and in the sense of having integrity. He understands the need for a ‘no penalties’ way of returning the Disappeared to their families, and he’s not one to be a ‘maverick.’ Readers who are tired of ‘rogue cops’ who can’t work with authority will be pleased to know that Devlin’s not like that. He is, however, a very pragmatic person. He knows that a quiet word with someone often gets more done than filling out a lot of paperwork. And he also knows that sometimes, it’s better to ask forgiveness, as the saying goes, than permission.
Readers who are tired of dysfunctional, drunken fictional police sleuths will also be pleased to know that Devlin is happily married and the loving father of two children. That doesn’t mean that everything is always easy at home. In this novel, for instance, there’s a sub-plot that concerns his sixteen-year-old daughter Penny’s trip to see a bonfire and what happens when she steps up to protect a friend. At the risk of going off on a tangent, there’s also an interesting scene where Devlin and his wife find a text on Penny’s ‘phone that she would much rather have kept private. It raises the question of what the line is between parental concern and snooping. It also shows the Devlins as a functional, ‘normal’ (if there is such a thing) family with ups, downs and an underlying love for each other.
In one sense, the story is not at all light or happy. The history behind the deaths is a very, very sad one, and knowing the truth about it doesn’t make things all right again. But at least there is some closure, and some good comes out of the events of the story.
The Nameless Dead is the story of what happens when too many secrets are kept for too long. It features a pragmatic, hard-working DI who negotiates life between two countries that are both very different and very much the same. The novel also gives some history about the Troubles and about the culture of the past. But what’s your view? Have you read The Nameless Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 30 March/Tuesday 31 March – The Circular Staircase – Mary Roberts Rinehart
Monday 6 April/Tuesday 7 April – Old City Hall – Robert Rotenberg
Monday 13 April/Tuesday 14 April – The Corpse With the Silver Tongue – Cathy Ace