Monday, December 3, 2012

How long must we sing this song?

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty is set in Northern Ireland, 1981. While Pope John Paul is recovering from an assassination attempt, Charles and Di are planning their wedding, and Spandau Ballet is topping the charts, men in a Belfast prison are starving themselves to death in protest against their treatment by British authorities.

It is one of the worst years of Ireland’s decades-long agony known as the Troubles. Northern Ireland is convulsed by bloody riots. Paramilitary groups are armed with automatic weapons and rocket-launchers. Incendiary devices kill civilians in restaurants. Sergeant Sean Duffy of the Ulster Royal Constabulary checks his car for bombs every morning.

Duffy is assigned a homicide: a young man was shot twice and his hand severed. At first Duffy assumes the man was killed by paramilitaries, perhaps in revenge for informing to the police. But the clues add up to something stranger, and when a second body is found, Duffy suspects Belfast has a serial killer.

The Cold Cold Ground is a gritty police procedural, at once grim and darkly funny. Duffy’s ability to investigate is constantly hampered by the partisan struggle; no one is willing to talk to a policeman for fear of reprisals, even when he’s investigating a murder.

The fact that the killer seems to be hunting homosexual men makes people even less interested in cooperating. Deeply conservative Northern Ireland is not worried about its gay men.

What I adored most about the book is how well it evokes the setting of a city tearing itself apart. McKinty, who was born in Carrickfergus, knows better than to simplify the conflict or to assign noble motives to any one side. He presents the Troubles in all their poisonous complexity: the Catholic Irish, the Church of Ireland Irish, the Presbyterian Irish, the Boston Irish; the police, the military, the various illegal paramilitaries; the Marxists, the Scots, the English. By making his Northern Irish cop a Catholic, he shows that none of these groups was monolithic.

The Cold Cold Ground is the first in a planned trilogy set during the Troubles. If you like grim, noirish mysteries, give it a try. The claustrophobic paranoia of Belfast in 1981 will stay with you.

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