Jim Kelly lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, with his partner, the writer Midge Gillies, and their daughter. He is the author of the series starring journalist Philip Dryden. The Dryden series won the 2006 CWA Dagger in the Library award for a body of work giving ‘the greatest enjoyment to readers’
Matt McGuire’s debut crime novel, set in contemporary Belfast, is like a good piece of Irish linen, woven from many threads. Born in the city, going on to teach in Glasgow, McGuire knows how to paint life in a post-industrial city. The building sites, the clubs and bars, the quietly desperate lives. The difference here is that this is not just post-industrial, its post-Troubles. McGuire’s point seems to be that nothing has changed except everything – there’s still violence, revenge, hopelessness, crime, drugs, vice. It’s just carried out in the name of greed, not belief in a creed.
As one of McGuire’s characters points out, as he pays off a crony: “It’s about product not politics. Politics is dead. The only kind of green people round here care about is in that envelope I just tossed you.” And again: “I don’t know the kind of shit you’ve heard. Peace process. New Northern Ireland. The Assembly.” He paused. “It’s a load of balls.”
The slow death of The Troubles seem to have left Belfast as a species of Irish Baltimore – immune to the effects of inward investment (it’s clearly a city of building site cranes) and of the various social ‘projects’ – or, perhaps, thriving because of them, and the loose cash they bring.
So – yet another mug of tea crashes to the floor in the offices of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
The specific crime in Dark Dawn – the knee-capping and beating to death of a teenager on a building site – isn’t at the heart of the book. It’s just what draws the threads together. You have to get used to this if you are going to enjoy the book. I lost count of the number of times McGuire tells us his hero – DS John O’Neill – has made no progress in finding who killed the kid: Pg 110 was the first – Pg 215 the last, and that’s just 35 pages from the end. In the finale the crime, and its solution, sort of emerge from the city’s streets, and the lives lived on them. Dark Dawn’s a portrait of Belfast told through the anatomy of a single crime.
There are several heroes and each still has a creed. O’Neill – separated from his wife, pining for his daughter, has been bumped up from uniform to CID. The so-called Laganview killing is his last chance to shine before a Review Board which is set to knock him back down to foot patrols. He’s driven by a mildly annoying self-righteous courage. The ‘we are the men who keep your streets safe’ line is slightly over-played. But O’Neill is a decent sleuth: dogged, sharp, brave, and he knows his streets. The geography of Belfast is as claustrophobic and maze-like as Venice. And it’s pretty much as wet.
DI Ward, O’Neill’s patron, is the wise head who keeps O’Neill on track – driven by the idea that he’ll be able to retire leaving O’Neill to carry the torch for real coppers – or peelers, in the Belfast vernacular. Ward and O’Neill are thorns in the side of the pen-pushers and management types on the ‘third floor’ at the Musgrave Street station – most of them trying to keep ahead of the Peace Process PR-bounce by pretending punishment killings don’t happen anymore.
But the book’s real hero is Joe Lynch. A legend of The Troubles, banged up in the Maze for three killings – or as he would have seen it, executions. Lynch is a mess: driven to see an analyst by his doctor in return for the sleeping pills which give him the rest he craves. He’s back on his old manor, and wants to start a new life, but the hoodlums are still thriving in the city’s underworld and they, inevitably, come looking for him. Which is a shame because what he really wants is to get to know the woman who lives on his street with the small child and no husband. If he did what the new villians want he could walk away with her and £20,000. It’s his decision, when it comes, which is the lynchpin, so to speak, of the book.
There are plenty of other 3D characters – technicolour 3D. My favourties were Marty and Petesy – two fifteen year old junior hoods who ‘stare down the traffic’ and decide to branch out into fresh crime of their own just to earn a few more quid. There’s a kind of catharsis for them by the time the book ends – but it comes at a horrible price. Their back-street patois is completely believable and often hilarious. And there’s a sort of bleak evolution here too – the young hoodlums trying to edge out the old hoodlums, turning out – probably – just as bad, and equally motivated by what they can buy with their money – all except Petesy, whose final incarnation is heart-breakingly hopeful.
For everyone else the future looks grim. This is a world where casual violence is just beneath the surface of everyday life. So much so that McGuire writes of one of his characters, cigarette in mouth; “He suddenly wondered if this might be his last smoke and took two quick draws before tossing it away.” It’s McGuire’s acheivement to write a crime novel where that line can be read without a sense of melodrama. It is very rare to read a crime novel which makes you wonder if the action is actually going on – right now – somewhere in your own country.
O’Neill’s got the making of a series sleuth. There’s the wife – she’d come back if he’d just spend five minutes with her and his daughter instead of living in a world of perpetual Belfast noir. But if she doesn’t there’s Sam Jennings – a sassy ex-colleague of O’Neill’s who’s turned up at Musgrave Street, just in time to save his life. And solving this case – the Laganview murder – will get O’Neill his stripes. So he is here to stay. Perhaps there’s hope here – in that his creed, a kind of dogged decency, may one day replace the new religion: money.