“The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs intersecting with exacting surfaces. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife.
And all this through a lens of oleaginous Belfast rain.” Adrian McKinty, The Cold Cold Ground
I was reminded of Sean Duffy’s poetic take on the beauty of a Belfast riot recently while the rubble of the previous night’s endeavors smoldered on the streets of certain parts of my hometown, Belfast. A new generation were being inducted into the rite of passage of how to make a petrol bomb: gather milk bottles (are milk bottles still a thing?’) fill them with petrol, stuff the top with a piece of fabric, light and throw quickly or risk doing the dance of the burning effigy. Elders, male and female, old enough to know better, cheered the youngsters on with shouts of ‘Go wan lad!’
Being from here, of this place, and having lived away from it, I appreciate that there are those looking on from the outside, in other regions of the UK, perplexed, often without any understanding of why peace in Northern Ireland is still uneasy. So, they ask what’s behind this unrest? The Northern Ireland Protocol? Criminality? Sectarian hatred?
All of the above and a few more problems added to the mix: mainly generations of under achievement in certain working-class areas and lack of proper provision to help navigate living with post-conflict trauma. Our political, cultural and social history has long had a dual narrative—us and them. This is subject to further subdivides, that include generational, class and gender divides. Yet, the two-community narrative fails to understand the commonality that exists. None of us will prosper economically, socially or emotionally until we all do. As ever with this place there no one answer. To quote William Faulkner, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’
If you are still struggling to understand the nuances, there is a growing corpus of crime fiction that interrogates past conflicts and explores how they impact on post-Troubles Northern Ireland. Read the following to gain insight and understanding, that a newspaper headline can never fully provide.
Brian McGilloway, The Last Crossing
Brian McGilloway writing from 2002 has provided a body of work that has provided insights into how the Troubles have far-reaching consequences. The Last Crossing released in 2020 calls the ghosts of the past to account for their sins. A ferry trip from Northern Ireland to Scotland can be rough at the best of times but add a reunion, planned to uncover long buried secrets and you can be sure of devastating consequences. His recent release of Blood Ties sees the return of detective Ben Devlin dealing with grooming, vigilantes and personal loss. McGilloway’s DI Lucy Black series sees him investigate more contemporary concerns, including homophobia and human trafficking, drawing on the personal alongside the professional life of the character.
Claire McGowan, The Lost
Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire series, starting with the first book, The Lost, offers an insight in what it means to live with the trauma of the past. Protagonist, Paula Maguire returns to her hometown, in her role of forensic psychologist to assist in the investigation of two missing girls, but she’s still dealing with the trauma of her missing mother. The long-term trauma of the Troubles lingers over this police procedural series, even encroaching on her on and off again relationship with childhood friend Aidan.
Anthony Quinn, Turncoat
In Turncoat Anthony Quinn provides a haunting and poetic exploration of what it means to seek refuge and find understanding of the self. When Catholic RUC detective, Desmond Maguire is the sole survivor of an ambush, he must deal with the weight of suspicion. The ‘pilgrim detective’ hides out on Station Island, praying, fasting and contemplating his way out, even though he as he says, he can’t be killed, because he’s in hell anyway.
Quinn’s earlier work, featuring detective protagonist, Celsius Daly, gives insight into life lived in the shadow of the Troubles, set along the border territory, exploring themes of vengeance and restorative justice, often with a concern for crimes of the past that impact on present days lives.
Claire Allan, Ask No Questions
Claire Allan has arrived on the scene with her domestic thrillers offering a new type of Northern Irish crime fiction. In Claire Allan’s Ask No Questions journalist Ingrid Devlin is tasked with writing a story in commemoration of the anniversary of her childhood friend who was murdered at Halloween. The Troubles provide a sinister backdrop, making the reader aware that danger is never far away. Allan’s work provides a psychological exploration of violence in the domestic landscape with wider societal concerns.
Eoin McNamee, Resurrection Man
Much lauded, Eoin McNamee’s work employs real life crimes, often providing an up-close stylized enactment of violence within the confines of story. In Resurrection Man, published in 1994, protagonist Victor Kelly, heads up a unit of sectarian serial killers. Drawing on the real-life Shankill Butchers, a group of sadistic killers who operated in the 1970s, this novel shows Belfast at its worst.
Stuart Neville, The Ghosts of Belfasts
Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast still holds up as an excellent insight into the psyche of those that kill. Former paramilitary, Gerry Fegan is haunted by his victims and embarks on a mission to right some of the wrongs, illuminating how politics and violence have often been co-dependent in Northern Ireland. Female experiences have been somewhat overlooked and marginalized as an inheritance of the Troubles and Neville, like McGilloway has sought to redress this in his later series, featuring DCI Serena Flanagan.
Colin Bateman, Fire and Brimstone
If you want to experience the bitingly caustic, black humor that we are known for, then look no further than Colin Bateman. Fire and Brimstone is one of my favorite Dan Starkey novels. Writing about Northern Ireland from the mid-nineties, Bateman has created a body of work that captures the tragicomedy of a place, that at times, seemed hell bent on destroying itself.
Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series
Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy mentioned in the introduction offers a critique of Northern Ireland in the 1980s, complete with collusion, institutional sectarianism, and violence, seen through a noir lens. The Duffy series deals with often real-life events drawing on cultural references from Starsky and Hutch, Led Zeppelin to Jimmy Saville and Mohammed Ali. Duffy, the outsider, a Catholic working in the largely protestant RUC, navigates his way through a nihilistic world where paramilitary violence competes with everyday mundanity.
Kelly Creighton, The Bones of It
No Northern Irish reading list is complete without mention of the post-conflict novel The Bones of It, by Kelly Creighton. Kelly has a new crime series with the character of DI Harriet Sloane. Special mention also to Gerard Brennan, who’s title Disorder, offers a bleak but often humorous insight into so called recreational rioting with Northern Irish vernacular wise-cracking out of the pages. Others to read include: Simon Maltman who has recently published Witness, James Murphy who concluded his Terror trilogy with Dark Light, and Catriona King who is on her twenty-fourth Craig Crime Series.
Then, if you fancy some insight into the literary criticism of Irish crime fiction then Guilt Rules All, edited by Elizabeth Mannion and Brian Cliff offers an excellent and highly readable overview of crime fiction from the island of Ireland.
And finally, I would be remiss not to mention my own novel, Who took Eden Mulligan?, published by Avon. At the heart of this novel is a cold case mystery wrapped in a present-day multiple murder investigation. Described by Northern Ireland writer of US based thrillers, Steve Cavanagh, as ‘An excellent slice of crime fiction. Gripping and pacy.’
Who took Eden Mulligan? is out now in Ireland and will be released in the UK and the United States in the summer.