Northern Ireland 30 years ago was not a place often fictionalised by crime writers. Maze hunger strikes, bombs, riots, shootings – few had the appetite or perspective to depict the period. But following the Celtic Tiger years this has changed with terrific novels about The Troubles and their legacy from Irish authors such as Stuart Neville and Brian McGilloway.
The Cold Cold Ground takes the reader right into the heart of the strife in 1981. Sean Duffy is the narrator, a newly promoted detective sergeant in the Carrickfergus CID, university educated and a Catholic among the predominantly Protestant force.
He is landed with the murder of a man found shot in the chest in an abandoned car, the victim's hand severed. At first it seems obvious to one and all that the dead man was an informer who's been executed, but certain grotesque details of the crime and the discovery of a second body suddenly suggest a serial killer targeting gay men is at work. This is unusual because, as Duffy says, 'Anyone with that mindset has always been able to join one side or the other.' Duffy's workload is then increased with the apparent suicide of a woman found hung in the woods, who is divorced from her cheating IRA husband.
What a claustrophobic story Duffy tells, of ordinary policemen under duress attempting to investigate murders and a suicide, checking for bombs under their cars and meeting brick-throwing gangs of youths when they try to take fingerprints from a property in a Republican neighbourhood. Or dealing with Protestant paramilitaries who collude with IRA groups over rackets, narcotics and territory, but wouldn't lose sleep over killing a Catholic copper.
McKinty's writing is vivid, beginning with a striking description of a riot that has 'taken on a beauty of its own'. His hero is a wry observer of the abnormal society around him, a guy who makes mistakes, tries to strike up a relationship with a beautiful pathologist, and who keeps the reader biting their lip as he pushes his investigation into horribly perilous areas. Cold Cold Ground is the title of a Tom Waits song, and that is what seems to be waiting for Duffy throughout.
A journey into a terrifying and almost dreamlike labyrinth of violence and betrayal, The Cold Cold Ground certainly won't let the reader go. It's the first novel of a trilogy that promises to be a superb read.