Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The period known in Ireland as ‘the Troubles’ was a wrenching time, and has had a lasting impact on many, many people. We still see the impact today. To get a sense of what that time was like in Northern Ireland, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground, the first of his Sean Duffy novels.
It’s 1981, in the midst of the Troubles. D.S. Duffy is that rarity: a Catholic in the almost completely Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), posted to Carrickfergus. As it is, everyone’s nerves are on edge from the many riots going on. The recent deaths of two hunger strikers imprisoned in the Maze (Long Kesh) hasn’t helped matters at all.
Against that background, the body of Tommy Little is discovered dumped in a field. At first his death looks like a case of IRA ‘internal justice.’ But the case gets complicated when the body of Andrew Young is discovered in his cottage. He’s been killed in exactly the same way, and is not deeply involved with the IRA. Then, Duffy is contacted by a man who claims he’s the killer. He tells Duffy that he’s targeting homosexuals, and that more will die.
This complicates matters for a number of reasons. For one thing, homosexuality is illegal in that place and at that time. So the RUC isn’t likely to get any help from anyone who’s gay and who might have known the victims. And groups such as the IRA, who don’t want to be seen as accepting homosexuality, will do their best to hush the whole thing up. They’ll also do their best to cover up the fact that Little was widely known to be gay, but was accepted for quite a while before he was killed.
In the meantime, Duffy’s working on another case. Lucy O’Neill Moore, ex-wife of one of the hunger strikers in the Maze, has been found hung, apparently a suicide. Duffy has some questions about the death, though, and decides to follow up on them. For one thing, there’s the fact that she had given birth shortly before her death. At that time, and in that place, it’s not unheard of for an unwed mother to commit suicide. But then, where is the baby? And why did she disappear just before she died?
Duffy and his team face a number of challenges as they try to get to the truth in these cases. They are, of course, reviled by all Republicans. And even those who aren’t necessarily deep-dyed IRA supporters don’t want to be seen as assisting the police. But Duffy persists and, in the end, finds that this case is much more complicated than a man who’s targeting homosexuals.
One of the important elements in this novel is its sense of time and place. It’s a very dangerous time, no matter what side one’s on in the conflict. For the police, it’s especially dangerous. Every copper knows he has to check under his car for bombs, every time. And the police put on full riot gear whenever they go into certain areas, no matter the reason for their presence. Even the police stations are heavily guarded and protected, as there’ve been incidents of bombs and other attacks on RUC locations.
McKinty evokes the time and place in other ways, too. In the attitudes towards divorce, pregnancy, homosexuality and other issues, we see a strong conservative tradition. The politics of the time also feature heavily in the story. There’s also, as you might expect, a lot of bitterness between Catholics and Protestants, which often escalates into confrontation and more. And, since it’s the RUC’s job to try to keep the peace, neither side likes them very much.
Because Duffy’s a member of the RUC, there is also an element of the police procedural in the this novel. Duffy and his teammates interview people, get forensics information, and follow up leads. And it’s worth noting that, since this novel takes place in 1981, readers get a look at the way police did their work in the days before computers and the Internet.
Through it all moves Duffy, a Catholic in a very Protestant group. He’s not exactly observant, but he’s still a Catholic. That makes him a traitor in the eyes of the Republicans (because he’s in the RUC). And it makes him suspicious in the eyes of some of his Protestant colleagues, to say nothing of the Protestants who live near him. He’s trying to solve the murders, but there are plenty of people on both sides who don’t trust him.
Duffy has to deal with, and sometimes go up against, some very dangerous people. And I can say without spoiling the story that some of them are powerful. So there’s somewhat of a thriller element to the pacing and action in the novel. It’s not always clear who can be trusted and who can’t. And the closer that Duffy gets to the truth, the more danger there is for him. Readers who like that sort of pace will appreciate this.
The truth behind the murders is ugly, and even the somewhat jaded Duffy has difficulty with it. It’s not a neatly tied up package, so to speak, either. Readers who prefer mysteries where the ‘bad guy’ is duly caught and sent to prison will notice this. That said though, the solution is in keeping with the noir tone of the story.
There is a certain wit in the story. Here, for instance, is a bit of a conversation between Duffy and a colleague:
‘‘Last night I told a mate…my theory…’…[About the case]
‘What did he say to that?’ McCrabben asked.
‘He said I was a genius and he sent over the file on Jack the Ripper.’
‘Have you solved that one too?’
‘It was Queen Victoria.’
‘I knew it all along. Easy to conceal a machete under all that crinoline.’’
The wit reflects the cynical, jaded attitude of people who’ve seen too much death.
The Cold, Cold Ground is a police procedural that takes place during a terrible, wrenching time for Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and England. It features a police detective who’s just trying to do his job in, quite literally, a war zone. And it depicts the culture of the time and place. But what’s your view? Have you read The Cold, Cold Ground? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 8 March/Tuesday 9 March – A Perfect Match – Jill McGown
Monday 15 March/Tuesday 16 March – Dissolution – C.J. Sansom
Monday 22 March/Tuesday 23 March – Shinju – Laura Joh Rowland