The Irish crime fiction scene continues to surprise and impress with the arrival of Matt McGuire's debut novel. Dark Dawn is the first to feature Detective Sergeant John O'Neill of Belfast and McGuire does two things extremely well. He produces a gallery of sharply drawn characters – police, villains, lowlifes and civilians – and evokes Belfast emerging from the Troubles so well that you feel as though you know the place personally.
DS O'Neill is 34 but you wouldn't put him a day under 40. We meet him on a rain-sodden building site standing over the body of a teenage lad, who appears to have been the victim of a punishment knee-capping. It looks as though this could be a messy one for O'Neill. Such beatings are supposed to be a thing of the past. Was this a violent lesson taken too far? And is there any significance in the crime scene being on the site for the new luxury Laganview apartments?
The novel pinpoints the culture clash between the detectives who get their hands dirty on the streets, and the careerists who push paper and discuss crime figures at meetings. O'Neill's boss, shrewd old hand DI Ward, recognises his sergeant as a copper's copper and takes a risk by assigning the murder to the younger man, his first opportunity to act as principal. It's make or break for O'Neill, an acting sergeant who is coming up for review and whose senior officer, Chief Inspector Wilson, has disliked O'Neill since he disagreed publicly with him.
Needless to say, the case is a ball-breaker – no ID for the victim, no suspects, and any forensics washed away in the rain…
The writing is very sharp, witty at times and fizzes with mood and character. O'Neill is locked in a nasty, attritional struggle with Wilson while also trying to revive his marriage to Catherine, who loves him but has had enough of being married to a dedicated peeler. This is a moving part of the story, but there are plenty of other fascinating angles to it, particularly the character of Lynch, the former paramilitary just out of prison and a wily and formidable operator for any detective, crime boss or even his psychologist to pin down. Matt McGuire was born in Belfast and is now an English lecturer at the University of Western Australia. His diversion into fiction has got off to a terrific start with this absorbing, insightful crime story.