Across the Irish Sea

A really well-done mystery set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. A locked-room mystery and an explosive climax.

Issue #50, Sunday 10 September 2023

My Reading

A very slow few weeks of reading! I’ve only completed one book since last issue, I’m afraid. Though I’m in the middle of several other books. Let’s hope I will have got through them by next time.

Completed Since Last Issue

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty

I listened to this as an audiobook from Audible. The narration by Gerald Doyle was excellent, with his range of Irish, Scots and British accents. All audiobooks (well, good audiobooks) are performances, which is why I find computer-generated narration so flat and unsatisfying. This is a very good performance.

This is the third book in McKinty’s series featuring his protagonist Detective Sean Duffy, a policeman working in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the period of “The Troubles”: the violent conflict between the partisans of the minority of Catholics with the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. This particular novel, to set it in its historical context, begins in late 1983.

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel in 2014, as did its predecessor I Hear the Sirens in the Street in 2013. That was at a time when McKinty was living in Australia, and having a very tough time making a living; but he has since moved with his family to the United States after the success of his 2019 novel The Chain.

The novels in the Sean Duffy series are told in the first person. Duffy, as a Catholic officer in the mostly Protestant R.U.C. comes up against a lot of discrimination and hostility from both sides of the conflict. The Catholics brand him as a traitor and his Protestant colleagues and superiors don’t fully trust him. It doesn’t help that he’s a bit of a maverick, deeply disenchanted with his life and willing to break the rules.

A great deal of the charm and power of these books is how well McKinty integrates Duffy’s story with real-life events such as the breakout from the Maze Prison; the Falklands War; Maggie Thatcher’s assault on the coal miner’s union; and so on. In this novel this tight integration is done in a particularly clever way, putting Duffy at the very heart of a major historical event, though I won’t give away spoilers.

At the end of I Hear the Sirens in the Street, Duffy (for reasons I can now not recall—it’s quite a while since I read that book) has been demoted and sent to a remote police station. As In the Morning I’ll Be Gone opens, Duffy is fitted up for knocking over and badly injuring a cyclist while driving a police vehicle late one night. Duffy wasn’t driving the vehicle at the time, but his superiors and the colleague who was driving conspire to pin the action on him, and he’s forced to resign from the R.U.C. He spends some months aimlessly drinking and trying to avoid depression, and is then contacted by two agents from MI5, the British service dealing with internal affairs such as terrorism. Duffy, it seems, knew a prominent IRA terrorist and bomb-maker, Dermot McCann. Indeed he went to school with McCann and hung around with him even after he was recruited by the IRA. Right at the start of the novel McCann, with many others, is part of a mass breakout from Belfast’s notorious prison known as “The Maze” and has since been training in Libya, according to MI5. Now they believe that McCann has returned to Ireland and is planning a major terrorist attack to promote the Republican cause. Because of his connection with McCann, MI5 has approached Sean Duffy to help try to track down the terrorist before he can take action.

Then we get a really interesting second plot thread. In his efforts to locate McCann, Duffy talks to various members of McCann’s family, none of whom will tell him anything at all, even if they know of his whereabouts, which is itself extremely unlikely. Eventually however, Mary Fitzgerald, the mother of Dermott McCann’s ex-wife Annie recruits Duffy to look into the death of her daughter Lizzie four years previously. She holds out the promise that in return she can help Duffy locate her erstwhile son-in-law. This cold case turns out to be a classic locked-room mystery, which seems impossible of a solution: a young woman found dead in a pub with all its doors locked and barred.

Much of the novel revolves around Duffy and one of his colleagues trying to penetrate this mystery, for a long time to very little effect and they are becoming convinced that it was indeed an accidental death as it at had first seemed: but this is not an answer which will induce Mary Fitzgerald to help them find McCann. The solution to Lizzie’s death, when it finally comes, is clever and convincing. And then Duffy is able to go on with his primary task to locate Dermot McCann. When he does, the story comes to a shattering conclusion.

I thought this was top-notch, very well done indeed. I’ll be going to read more in the Duffy series, most of which are also available as audiobooks from Audible.

Currently Reading

As I said earlier, I’m in the middle of quite a few books:

I hope to have finished most of these by next issue!

Waiting on the Shelf

These are the next books I have queued up to read:

And that’s really all for this issue. I hope to have more for you next time.

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