Val McDermid: ‘If you want to understand where we are in 2017, read Rain Dogs’
McKinty has created the perfect character to explore Northern Ireland’s fragmented, savage and often contradictory world of law enforcement
Adrian McKinty: “a writer delighting in his linguistic facility; not showing off, but sharing it with the rest of us”
In the 1980s, for most people living in Britain, Northern Ireland was, to quote Neville Chamberlain, “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. But although the consequences were less catastrophic than Chamberlain’s attempts at appeasement, consequences there were for the citizenry on both sides of the Irish Sea who chose not to engage with that quarrel.
The only way to avoid history repeating itself is to make an effort to understand it. Some of that understanding comes from historians and political analysts. But by far the most effective route to getting under the skin of the past comes from the people who make it up – the novelists, the film-makers, the TV scriptwriters and even the poets.
If you doubt me, then pick up any of the Sean Duffy novels by Adrian McKinty. Duffy is a cop, but he’s a million light years away from the slab-faced monoliths who regularly spoke for the RUC during the Troubles. Duffy’s an iconoclast. A dope-smoking, music-loving, sarcastic smartarse who nevertheless can’t escape a deep-rooted commitment to the place he loves. He’s a contrarian – a Catholic RUC man who lives in the heart of the loyalist community – and that’s the ultimate key to his personality.
In Duffy, McKinty has created the perfect character to explore the fragmented, savage and often contradictory world of law enforcement in Northern Ireland, a world where the worst crimes are sometimes perpetrated by those charged with protecting their communities.
In Rain Dogs, the fifth in the series, Duffy lifts this to a new level with mordant excursions into the wider world. The book opens with a glorious set piece, a fictitious Belfast visit by Muhammad Ali, leaping “lepidopterously” on stage to sting like a bee. “He had shadow-boxed, he had waved, he had lied and told them their city was aesthetically pleasing. He could have run for Mayor on a Nation of Islam ticket and won on a first-round voice vote of the council.”
And this in spite of support from Bono, protests from the National Front and Ian Paisley’s “elderly band of evangelical parishioners, singing their discontent in… determinedly joyless psalmody”. This is a writer delighting in his linguistic facility; not showing off, but sharing it with the rest of us.
That brio never leaves Rain Dogs, even when despair and disaster visit Duffy. And there are plenty of those dotted through a novel whose murder mystery is only one segment of a disturbing journey through the dark duplicities of spider-web conspiracies. There’s an audacity to McKinty’s imagination that makes the reader draw breath sharply.
But he never relinquishes his hold on the understanding that wit and sharp observation is what keeps us reading long after we should have turned out the light. Duffy’s perversity, his sarcasm and his self-deprecation are what anchor us to these books. As well as the deft plotting, of course. Here, a stolen wallet, a Finnish trade delegation and a locked room murder cleverly lead us to the rotten core of a deeper conspiracy.
And that’s how the lessons of history seep seamlessly into our consciousness. If you want to understand where we are in 2017, read Rain Dogs. Better still, read all the Sean Duffy novels.
Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty is October’s Irish Times Book Club pick. Ian Rankin and Brian McGilloway will be contributing articles about McKinty throughout the month, along with an essay by a serving Catholic PSNI officer, which will be published anonymously as his life is still under threat from dissident paramilitaries. The series will culminate in a public interview with McKinty conducted by Irish Times Books Editor Martin Doyle in Belfast’s Europa Hotel (Europe’s most bombed etc) on Saturday, October 28th, at 1pm as part of the inaugural NOIRELAND International Crime Fiction Festival, which runs from October 27th-29th. The podcast of the interview will be available on October 30th.