In Northern Ireland in 1981 Sean Duffy, newly promoted to Detective Sergeant, is posted to the relatively safe town of Carrickfergus just outside Belfast. He’s a minority in the RUC, having a university qualification and being Catholic, so the bosses want him to stay out of harm’s way and learn all he can. But Belfast is experiencing nightly riots and regular bombings and Duffy is a potential target for Republicans (for having joined the police) and loyalists (for being Catholic) so safety is definitely a relative term but he is determined to just get on with his job. His first big case at his new posting looks, at first, like the routine murder of a low-level informant. But evidence starts to mount up that this is a different kind of killing, perhaps the sort of serial killing not normally seen in Ireland where ‘people of that mindset can join one side or the other’. Another murder and then the apparent suicide of a young woman all become Duffy’s problems to solve.
The backdrop to THE COLD, COLD GROUND is, not surprisingly, grim. The timing of the story is very specific, opening as Belfast erupts into a riot that plays out like a crazed ballet as a second hunger-striking Republican prisoner, protesting their loss of Special Category status, has died in Maze prison. Political and social tension is high, there is rampant unemployment and poverty, people are emigrating en masse to England or further afield, and things are, in general, the very opposite of peachy keen. But what I loved even more than this undoubtedly authentic and almost physically cloying atmosphere is that McKinty has teased out the drama, intimacy and dark humour in the lives people live while madness, hypocrisy and ignorance whirl about them. Somehow it’s the little details, like the foreign media’s disinterest in reporting on a brutal killing that isn’t considered part of the Troubles or the squad routinely dressing in riot gear just to attend a crime scene in an unfriendly part of town, that highlight the surreal nature of the situation to perfection.
Sean Duffy is a complicated character with his share of demons but he falls on the right side of the line that separates flawed and fallible from completely unbelievable basket case. I didn’t know what to make of him for much of the book – he has character traits that I admire,others I don’t and it’s never entirely clear what makes him tick or what choice he will make in any situation. But I think that’s why I was drawn to him: so many people (in real life was well as fiction) are so bloody sure of themselves they make me want to scream, whereas Sean Duffy is as confused about aspects of his own makeup as I am about mine. I couldn’t help but find that endearing. The quick humour, the spot-on analysis of the problem inherent in John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, the obsession with Serpico’s moustache and the drinking of plentiful vodka gimlets are all delicious bonuses.
I was, I must admit, a little wary when I started this book after seeing the pull quote on the back that suggested it would be similar to David Peace’s Red Riding quartet. Although I know it brands me a wuss (or an enemy of the proletariat?) frankly the one of those books I’ve read made me want to curl into a ball and weep for a week. I try to read a range of crime fiction but I don’t particularly enjoy having guilt heaped upon me for what is largely an accident of birth. Fortunately for me I found THE COLD, COLD GROUND a much more nuanced and accessible read. I’m not entirely sure McKinty will think that a compliment but it’s genuinely meant. Telling a story is only half of the equation, a story has to be heard as well and it’s the story teller’s job to entice us to listen.
THE COLD, COLD GROUND is a damned enticing story. It is at times funny, uncomfortable, violent, frightening and sad and sometimes all of these at once. It is an eye-opening look at a time I feel blessed not to have lived through (because my grandparents emigrated a few decades earlier) as it exposes harsh realities about difficult lives. It isn’t an easy read but, due to its humour and the humanity of its protagonist, it isn’t unremittingly bleak either. I liked it so much that even though I’ve just finished reading it I bought it today in audio format narrated by the beautifully voiced Gerard Doyle so I can ‘read’ it again (though this time with a proper Irish accent instead of the one I did in my head because even my imagination is crap at accents). I think this is a book all readers should take a chance on.
In case you are wondering why a book set in Ireland and written by a man born in Ireland is being reviewed on site devoted to Australian crime fiction I will admit to stretching the definition of Australian but not, I think, breaking it. Adrian has lived here since 2008 and thrown himself fully into local customs (well he has stuffed his family in a caravan at Warrnambool and called it a holiday which is, trust me, about as Aussie as it gets – I’ve still got the scar on my shoulder from where my brother’s bunk fell on me in the middle of the night 36 years ago in a Warnambool caravan park) and we have quite the tradition of quickly adopting talented foreigners as our very own (assuming of course they don’t land here in a leaky boat claiming refugee status but that is an entirely different story for an entirely different blog).
THE COLD, COLD GROUND is the first book in a planned trilogy featuring Sean Duffy.
My rating: 4/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website: http://adrianmckinty.blogspot.com/
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail 
Length: 332 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: provided by the author for review
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