I know that when I was looking forward to 2014 I promised myself (and you) that I wouldn’t read as many crime novels as I had in 2013 and that certainly I wouldn’t be seeking out new authors. However, circumstances change and as I struggle to find a medication whose side-effects aren’t worse than the symptoms it’s meant to control, comfort reading is what I need. In fact, if I’m honest, it’s all that I can manage. So, the discovery of a first rate crime writer who already has seven books in print has been a real gift from the gods.
I mentioned Brian McGilloway in my last weekly fragments’ post when I had not long since finished his most recent novel Hurt. That was the second in a series featuring DS Lucy Black and set in and around Derry, a city that is just on the Ulster side of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. There is, however, an earlier, but still ongoing, series located on the other side of the border and built around Detective Inspector Benedict Devlin, the first instalment of which is the aptly named Borderlands.
It is the winter of 2002, a time when co-operation between the police forces on either side of the border was still tentative. Inspector Devlin is called out in respect of a young girl who has been murdered and her body left just on the Republican side of the border. The only clues to who she is and why she has been killed are a gold ring and an old photograph. Once she has been identified as local teenager, Angela Cashell, rumour links her to a youth from a local travellers’ site and her family (not unknown to the law themselves) decide to take the matter into their own hands. As a result a good number of likely suspects are locked up when the the next death occurs and the body of a young man is found in a burnt-out car. At first investigated as a possible RTA, it very quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t the case when the charred body is brought out of the wreck and found to have a gunshot wound to the head. Is there a connection between the two murders? And if so, what might it be?
With all this on his plate Devlin is understandably irritated when a local grandee, Thomas Powell, demands that someone investigate the reports that there has been an intruder in his father’s care home. The old man, who has dementia, claims that he woke up and saw someone in his bedroom although there is no other indication that this might actually have happened. For Devlin the issue is complicated by the relationship he once had with the woman who then dumped him to become Powell’s wife. He is unwilling to get involved, especially when it becomes apparent that the Thomas’s marriage is failing and Miriam is looking for consolation elsewhere.
Eventually the two strands of the story come together but not before Devlin has cause to look into both his own past and that of colleagues for whom he feels respect and sympathy and this, I think, is indicative of a particular feature of the crime fiction that is coming out of Northern Ireland and the borderlands at the moment. Whilst the worst of the trouble with sectarian groups might be over, the aftermath of those times still shapes both the types of crimes the police have to deal with and the nature of the justice that they mete out and no one is likely to have a past that isn’t marred in one way or another by the violence of the latter half of the twentieth century.
This is reflected in several ways. The nature of civic disorder is way beyond anything we would normally expect in other parts of the UK. As one of the characters in McGilloway’s later novel, Hurt, acknowledges, a little bit of recreational rioting is both expected and accepted and in Borderlands, when one group thinks it has a grievance against either an individual or another group, they think nothing of settling that grievance with a well tossed fire bomb. Keeping order in a situation like this is difficult and there are times in both McGilloway and Claire McGowan’s work when the morality behind the punishment handed out or the solution finally acknowledged is difficult for some members of the police to live with. It is, however, seen as expedient in terms of the bigger picture of community peace and serving officers lower down the chain of command have frequently to bit their lips and look away. And, more so than would be the case anywhere on the mainland, the characters we meet have to live with the knowledge that it may be better not to look too far into the past lives of the people with whom they work and socialise on a daily basis for they may not like what they find. It must be hard to have lived in Ulster in the last fifty years without having been touched by the Troubles in one way or another.
McGilloway catches this unsettled world which he must know only too well with an ease that belies the fact that this is his first novel. Perhaps he fills it with too many horrific incidents, especially towards the end, but having also read his most recent work it’s clear that his plotting has improved over time. What is already apparent in Borderlands is the quality of his writing and his poet’s eye for the telling metaphor. There is a side plot running through the novel to do with sheep worrying, a crime the local farmer would pin on Devlin’s dog. In the end Devlin himself is almost convinced that Frank is guilty as charged and is ready to accept that the dog will have to be destroyed.
Frank had somehow escaped from the shed once again. Now he lay at the back door of the house, his body flat against the ground, the fur on his back raised, his single long ear under his snout. But he was not looking at me. I followed his gaze to his food dish, and there, in the shadows of the cherry tree near the top of the garden, stood a wild cat.
It was nearly the size of a collie, its body compact and hard, its dark fur sleek and shining in the morning light. It was poised to flee, muscles tensed, legs bent, it’s hard golden eyes trained on me. It considered me for a moment, raising its head slightly to sniff the air. Then it dipped its head again into Frank’s food bowl and ate the remains of his dinner from the previous night.
I shifted my gun from one hand to the other, considering whether I had any chance of firing a shot. The cat lifted its head again and looked at me with disdain. The dawn sun was spreading slowly across the lawn now. The animal snarled once, lightly, baring its teeth, then it turned and padded up through the hedge row and into the field beyond.
The cat is surely symbolic of those people who have slipped away into the night, unpunished while others have suffered in their stead. The metaphor itself and the writing, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney, himself brought up in this same landscape and several decades ago a pupil at the school where McGilloway now teaches.