On the early-morning train to Belfast to meet Anthony Quinn, I fall asleep. Somewhere between Dundalk and Newry I wake up and find myself in a different country. The fields and hills are dusted with white. Snow has drifted into low-lying corners. Mist swirls among the hedges. This is neither the Republic nor Northern Ireland. It's Border country at its most enigmatic and elusive: the setting for Quinn's atmospheric crime novels Disappeared and Border Angels.
You might wonder whether the world needs another slice of Nordie noir. We already have Stuart Neville and Brian McGilloway, Adrian McGinty and Matt Maguire, all providing murderous mysteries from Ulster. In his first two outings, however, Quinn has created a distinctive milieu for his fictional anti-hero, Insp Celcius Daly of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Read these books and you'll never think of rural Armagh in quite the same way.
Tall and trim and softly spoken, Quinn grew up on a farm in Tyrone. He used to be a market gardener, and he still lives in the foothills of the Sperrin mountains with his family, a couple of polytunnels and a collection of chickens. Is that why fretful fowl put in regular appearances in the books?
Quinn smiles fondly. “They give the story a bit of lightness,” he says. As, apparently, they do in real life. “The hens are a big part of our family. One black hen in particular we took to Sligo on holiday with us one time. It caused a lot of hilarity – but she had to come with us, because we were afraid of the foxes. She stayed around the house, and when we came back from the beach she was there waiting for us. She made it seem very homely.”
Animal husbandry is just one of a range of skills that feed into Quinn’s fiction. After taking an undergraduate degree in English at Queen’s University Belfast he did a master’s in social work. “I worked in that field for 10 years, and did a lot of work in the mental-health field with ex-paramilitaries – and also with victims of the Troubles,” he says. “And you could see how people were haunted by the past and how it was affecting their lives.”
Untold stories of the Troubles
When he got a job as a journalist with the Tyrone Times and Mid-Ulster Mail, in 2005, Quinn thought he'd be processing the uncontentious stuff of everyday life: flower arranging and court reporting. The reality was somewhat different. "The phone kept ringing with stories of people trying to come to terms with grief – the untold stories of the Troubles," he says. "People who had had their own personal tragedies and injustices, and felt that they were being sidelined by the peaceful, harmonious society dreamed up in the Good Friday agreement. I discovered that the whole social landscape is a lot more fractured than that. There's a lot of hurt and pain."
One of the most striking features of Quinn’s novels is his compassionate approach to his characters. Whether he’s writing about an eastern European sex worker or a dissident Republican living on a ghost estate, he creates a rounded person first and foremost. “I want each character to be at least likeable,” he says.
Which is not to say that he condones the misappropriation of peace-fund money or the smuggling of dodgy diesel. Not to mention the use of remote rural locations for hiding the bodies of innocent people, or the shameful busyness of rural brothels – all of which feature in the storylines of Disappeared and Border Angels. But, as he points out, in Northern Ireland the line between good and bad has always been particularly blurry.
“The fact that ex-paramilitaries – or freedom fighters, if you prefer – are in power, that they have this political set-up around them, adds depth to the books. We’re all human, and during the Troubles so many of us were caught up in extraordinary situations. People managed as best they could. There’s good and bad on both sides; and that shading is very important.
"One of the biggest influences on me is Graham Greene. He was very good at bringing out the darkness in everybody as well as the light. PD James and Ruth Rendell are also influences. But I would say that Stuart Neville and Colin Bateman have influenced me in more subtle ways, in that they first took on writing about the Troubles and using detective fiction to do it. They knocked away my inhibitions in that respect."
Why did Quinn choose Co Armagh for the Daly stories? “It’s Lough Neagh, really,” he says. “It’s a hidden part of Northern Ireland. It’s almost a hidden lake in itself. Because the waterline has descended over the years it can’t be seen from the roads, even. So you have this very large body of water that’s like a void in the middle of the country.
“There’s a mystical sense to it, but also a kind of darkness. The gruesomeness of the bogs and the blackthorn hedges – and the sense that in these little parishes where murder has happened, loose little bits of the past are still floating around in the darkness. There’s a haunted sense that I wanted to come through.”
Disappeared places an elderly British spy – who is suffering from Alzheimer's – at the centre of a web of unresolved intrigue. Rejected by a raft of UK publishers as being "too immersed in the Troubles", the book was first published in New York, where it attracted a raft of praise that eventually brought it back across the Atlantic and on to books-of-the-year lists at the Daily Mail and the Times in 2014.
Quinn admits that his second book, Border Angels, set out to smash at least one crime-fiction staple. "I wanted to do something different from what you always see in detective fiction, which is a serial killer attacking females. So at the start a woman is often killed and then the supercop comes and works it all out." In Border Angels it's the woman, Lena Novak, who is clever and resourceful, while Daly is often bumbling along in her wake.
With its cast of Latvian migrants and local smugglers the book may seem like an outlandish mix – a fanciful tapestry of past and future. But that, Quinn says, is how things are in Border country these days.
“The Border is very porous now that the bridges and roads have been fixed again,” he says. Meanwhile, even the quietest towns are changing dramatically. “Of all the borough districts in all of the UK, Dungannon has the largest influx of migrant workers. People who had been trafficked were also found in a house in Dungannon recently. These things do happen in small, out-of-the-way country places.”
WB Yeats turns to murder
Alongside his series of contemporary crime novels Anthony Quinn has embarked on a series of historical adventures featuring famous figures from Irish history. The first of these, 'The Blood Dimmed Tide', finds WB Yeats on the trail of a murderer.
“It was a wee bit of a holiday for me, from the darkness of the Celcius Daly books,” Quinn says. “Yeats is kind of like a Sherlock Holmes of the supernatural.”
It's a complete accident that the book, published by No Exit Press, has appeared just as the high-profile "Yeats year" kicks off. But Quinn's not complaining. Instead he's at work on a second volume, 'Blind Arrows', about Michael Collins and the financial skulduggery around the war of independence.
Border Angels is published by Head of Zeus. Disappeared will be out in paperback in April