It’s 1988. Sean Duffy, a rare Catholic policeman in the RUC, is being marched into the woods by three IRA gunmen and one IRA gunwoman. One of them carries a shovel. With which Sean will be asked to dig his own grave.
This is how the sixth book in this funny, sad, brilliant series opens and I nearly stopped right there. Few authors would dare to kill off their series hero and even fewer would do so at the beginning of a novel. But Adrian McKinty is just the sort of twisted bastard of an author to do it if it made for the best story and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. But…I had to know.
As is the way of such things readers are left on tenterhooks awaiting Sean’s fate while we flashback to a few days earlier and start to learn what has led Sean to his dire situation. In a semblance of unexpected normality Sean is holidaying with his girlfriend and baby daughter at his parents’ house when he is called back to Carrikfergus to investigate a death-by-crossbow in the economically destitute Sunnylands estate. Where “…the only distractions to be had were hassling single women at the bus stop and building bonfires” and Sean can “…almost smell the stench of cheap ciggies, unwashed armpits, solvents, lighter fluid and special brew“. He is presented with a shambles of a crime scene. The body has not been cordoned off. The crowd is so close to it that their cigarette ash is falling onto it. There’s even a goat slobbering over the deceased. Forever contaminating what evidence there might have been. And Sean Duffy’s trusted sergeant John ‘Crabby’ McCrabben has been stabbed by the victim’s wife.
And so begins another adventure in the somewhat surreal life of Sean Duffy, his few friends and an increasingly large pool of enemies. I’ll say nothing more about the plot. Except that it’s a ripper. Lots of twists and turns and enough near-death experiences to have me reaching for the angina medication.
Although you could, you probably wouldn’t read this series just for the plots.
There’s their almost documentary-like observations of life during The Troubles which is done with dark humour yet a light, non-expositional touch. It’s the little things really. Like every time Sean Duffy gets into his car he checks underneath for mercury tilt bombs. Regardless of whether it’s been parked in the street outside his house overnight or he’s nicked into a shop for a minute Sean always checks. Sometimes he does it surreptitiously – pretending he dropped his lighter for example – but he always checks and readers are always told about it. Which means that instead of checking for bombs being a kind of abstract concept – as it would be if we had to infer its repetition from a single mention – we get a glimmer of what it must be like to live that kind of life.
And there are the characters. Duffy is 38 now and feeling every year of it with his newly diagnosed asthma and the effects of years of smoking, drinking and taking the odd recreational drug. He is still able to laugh at some of the chaos but his intermittent depression at the senselessness surrounding them all is still, understandably, there. Though of course he feels and behaves differently with the inclusion of Beth and Emma in his life. Beth is a welcome addition and her depiction seems very realistic as she struggles to stick by the man she loves while he – and their little family – is subject to very, very real danger. Duffy’s two staunchest allies, the aforementioned Crabby and DC Lawson, prove once again what real friends they truly are. It’s really quite a lovely depiction of male friendship; and not the kind involving stupid levels of drunkenness and womanising that is depicted in much of popular culture.
I could go on quite a bit more but if you are not yet convinced it’s probably a lost cause. I will just say that if you like the sound of a book in which the chaos of real life plays more of a role than neat endings and conventional justice then this one is for you. That it has gallows humour, wholly understandable musical snobbery, more than a single traitor and a very fast car is all to the good. If you want the ultimate experience then invite Gerard Doyle into your ears to tell you the story.
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, 2015
Narrator: Gerard Doyle
Length: 9 hours 49 minutes
Format: audio book (mp3)
Source of review copy: I bought it