“We drove into the city along the M5. Burnt-out buses. A wrecked Saracen. A post-office van on fire. Soldiers walking in single file.”
By now, you may have worked out that you have not just come off the Hume Highway on your way to Sydney airport. This is the short stretch of motorway that links Larne to Belfast and the landscape features mentioned are par for that part of the world in the early 1980s.
The action of the story is set in the weeks after the death of Bobby Sands. Dublin, as I well recall, was scary enough in those days; the author evokes what a hell it must have been in Belfast.
In one sense, the book is an ordinary police procedural, but when the police in question are the RUC, there are bound to be complications.
The central character is Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, the sole Catholic in the station at Carrickfergus, just north of Belfast.
Work is not the only place where he is different; he has bought a house in an estate where the rival UVF and UDA have reached uneasy working arrangements for murder, drug dealing, protection and other means of social control and personal enrichment.
A man is found dead in one of the many abandoned cars in the area. His hand has been cut off and placed beside the body. The next day another man is found dead in his own home and in a similar hand-less state. Both are homosexuals, their practices regarded as criminal in all parts of the UK in those days.
Messages threatening to kill other homosexuals follow, and the newspapers get wind of the word. But the story of a serial killer is given space only on the inside pages because Charles Windsor has announced his engagement to Diana Spencer, and the trial of the Yorkshire Ripper hogs the front pages even from dying hunger strikers and the riots that accompanied each death.
Because both groups of fighters trying to free Ireland – one from London, the other from Rome – have strong opinions about gay people, Sergeant Duffy wonders if the serial killing is just a convenient excuse for common-or-garden murder.
And because it is the 1980s, he has to depend on old-fashioned devices like beepers and faxes and dial phones.
He is a bit of a bumbler and much of his time is spent threatening suspects and trying to persuade his boss that he knows what he is doing.
At one stage, he visits a hunger striker in Long Kesh where he meets Gerry Adams, “all puffy left-wing history teacher, with his full beard, thick glasses and unkempt brown hair flecked with the occasional strand of grey.”
The ending is a bit contrived, a bit too complicated, but you will be so engrossed in the story that you won’t notice. The feeling of a deeply conservative society, inward-looking, fearful, a place under siege, is claustrophobic.
The writing is sharp and witty – I loved the description of the local whiskey “tasting of salt, sea, rain, wind and the Old Testament”.
McKinty, who grew up in Carrickfergus, now lives in Melbourne; this is the first of what will be a trilogy featuring Seán Duffy. I look forward to the next one.