Death in paradise: Adrian McKinty and the strange case of the Cocovores
The crime writer has turned away from Northern Ireland for his new novel, about a murder in a German nudist religious cult in the South Pacific a century ago
Sun worshipper: August Engelhardt, founder of the Cocovore community
Crime scene: Adrian McKinty. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
‘There’s this true story about when Oliver North came to Ireland,” says Adrian McKinty. “It’s a crackpot idea, but he gets himself an Irish passport and calls himself Tom Clancy, because Clancy is his favourite spy novelist and he’s being a spy.”
McKinty is outlining the backdrop to what will be his next novel, the fourth in a series centring on Sean Duffy, a Catholic RUC officer in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.
Rooted in historical events such as the hunger strikes and the Brighton bombing, the books feature cameos from well-known historical figures, including George Seawright, Gerry Adams and John DeLorean. North, notorious for his role in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, pops up in the next book.
“So North goes to the IRA and says, ‘Can I get some missiles?’ And they take one look at him and go, ‘Who’s this joker?’ They won’t have anything to do with him. And he goes to the UVF, and he asks them for missiles, and they go, ‘Oh yeah, of course.’ ”
Born and raised in Carrickfergus, McKinty left Northern Ireland to read politics and philosophy at Oxford University. He has lived in the US and Australia for most of his adult life, publishing his first novel, Orange Rhymes With Everything, in 1998. The acclaimed Dead I Well May Be, from 2003, was his first crime novel, and today he is regarded as a leading light, with John Connolly, Tana French and Eoin McNamee, of the current wave of Irish crime writing.
After three novels in a row set against the bleak, claustrophobic backdrop of 1980s Northern Ireland, however, McKinty found himself gasping for artistic breathing space. His new novel, The Sun Is God, is set in the South Pacific in 1906 and rooted in the bizarre true story of a German cult of nudists, the Cocovores, who ate only coconuts and worshipped the sun.
“Mostly it was because I was so excited by the story,” says McKinty. “It was a murder case that took place in a German nudist religious cult – and no one has told this story? But, to be honest, I was a bit fed up about reading background material about Northern Ireland in the 1980s, because you know what they’re all going to say. And it was really fun to look at another part of the world, at a different time.”
In the novel Will Prior is a former British military policeman and a disillusioned veteran of the Boer War. Prior is living a dissolute life as a rubber-plantation manager in German New Guinea when he is approached to help investigate a suspicious death on the island of Kabakon, where the Cocovores have set up their community.
“I liked Pat Barker’s book The Ghost Road, and there’s a character in that called Billy Prior. I really liked that name, but I couldn’t call him Billy, because even that was too Northern Ireland.”
Belfast noirMcKinty’s radical departure in terms of setting arrives just as Northern Ireland-set crime writing is beginning to flourish. Belfast Noir, a collection of short stories that McKinty edited with Stuart Neville, and will be published in November, features McNamee and his fellow Northern Irish crime writers Brian McGilloway, Claire McGowan, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Gerard Brennan. Does Belfast Noir represent a coming of age for Northern Irish crime writing?
“I think so, yes. I think it’s interesting, in the first place, that you’re allowed to talk about this now. The situation has normalised to the extent where this is not totally taboo: we can actually talk about these subjects now. Five or six years ago, even, the attitude would have been, ‘No, let’s not talk about this yet.’ ”
What was particularly pleasing to McKinty was the way non-crime authors such as Lucy Caldwell and Glenn Patterson seamlessly fitted into the collection. “I think if you grow up in a culture where the army is out on the street sighting you with rifles,” he says, “it has to have some kind of psychological impact.”
In The Sun Is God Will Prior’s previous experience of horrific violence has dulled his humanity to the point where he is nowhere as smart, noble or interested in justice as the conventional detective in a crime novel should be.
“One of the things I liked about Will Prior – and this probably won’t be popular at all – is that he doesn’t actually solve the crime,” says McKinty. “He gets it all wrong. We’ve seen that kind of thing before, many times, but it’s always done for comedic effect. But I thought, What about doing it when it’s not for comedic effect? He’s just wrong.
“And I know readers hate that. They’ll put up with anything except for an incompetent lead. They’ll put up with drinking, racism, womanising – but if you have someone who’s not good at their job, they hate it.”
Prior’s ineffectiveness is in part due to the fact that the crime on Kabakon, if crime it was, remains unsolved, but it’s also a reflection of McKinty’s spiky refusal to be chained to the genre’s conventions, and contains an echo of Francis Bacon’s idea, often quoted by McNamee, that the job of all art is to deepen the mystery.
“Even today,” says McKinty, “nobody knows the truth about Kabakon Island. I’ve done a lot of research into it, and no one actually knows the answer. It probably was a murder, but no one knows for sure, or who did it, or why. You can only speculate on what happened.”
The Sun Is God is published by Serpent’s Tail