It hasn’t happened overnight, and there are more complex reasons as to why it is so than can be satisfactorily addressed in a book review, but policing in Ireland is suffering from something of a crisis of confidence. In recent times the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), historically perceived to be facilitating a pro-Loyalist agenda, has been reformed into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in a bid to provide a police service in which both Nationalist and Loyalist communities in the Ulster province can – theoretically, at least – place their trust.
Across the border in the Republic of Ireland there have been similar calls for a reform of An Garda Siochana, the Irish police force. Here the issue is not that the Gardai favour one community over another, but that the Irish people are simply losing faith with the purported guardians of the peace. A number of high-profile cases strongly suggests that members of An Garda Siochana have subverted the course of justice and the law of the land in pursuing personal agendas and vendettas. As a self-regulating body, subsequent investigations by the Gardai into alleged wrong-doing have not resulted in satisfactory conclusions for the public at large. There are also issues relating to the separation of powers, allegations of undue political influence being brought to bear, and a creeping sense that a crude philosophy of arrogant lèse majesté pertains within An Garda Siochana.
Donegal, where Brian McGilloway sets his Inspector Devlin stories, makes for fertile ground in relation to these issues. Although one of the 32 counties of the Republic of Ireland, Donegal is also one of the Ulster counties, the majority of which make up the political entity of Northern Ireland. In geographical terms, Donegal is somewhat cut off from the rest of the Republic, and its main town, Letterkenny, has more in common with Derry and Belfast in Northern Ireland than Dublin or Cork in the Republic. The ‘high-profile’ cases of An Garda Siochana’s abuse of its powers referred to above have occurred in Donegal.
The plural in the title of McGilloway’s debut, BORDERLANDS, and its implicit subtext of ‘badlands’, makes clear from the outset that there are unresolved issues about the morality of policing in Ireland that go far beyond lines on a map.
In GALLOWS LANE, the sequel to BORDERLANDS, Inspector Devlin reluctantly applies for promotion, and attends an interview. “Things seem to be a little out of control up there at the moment, Inspector,’ the air-line manager said. “Quite a number of killings – no arrests as such. It’s a bit of a wild frontier you’re policing.”
Devlin, while in the mould of the classic ‘good guy doing the wrong thing for the right reasons’, isn’t exactly Dirty Harry. A sensitive and thoughtful policeman, he is not naïve, but is prepared to go by the book even as he investigates the particularly brutal murder of a young girl. That line of enquiry provides the spine of the narrative, but McGilloway deftly weaves a number of sub-plots around it: Devlin’s personal life, and how his job impacts on the family home; Devlin’s passive response when he finds himself compromised when he discovers that fellow Gardai are planting weapons and drugs and claiming them as ‘results’ in order to boost their own promotion prospects; and Devlin’s active compromising of himself, when he resorts to similar methods in order to secure an arrest he is convinced is sound, despite the lack of evidence.
It’s a very personal story, in that Devlin’s responses to practically any situation is to refract it through the prism of his domestic life, to question the rightness of what he does by referring to the touchstone of his family unit of wife and two young children. Devlin, for the sake of his sanity, believes in doing the right thing in order to maintain the fabric of society for the silent majority, of which his own family is only a tiny part. But McGilloway isn’t content to allow Devlin to wallow in a nobility that that comes at a price. When he tries to persuade a colleague, hospitalised by an act of sabotage intended for Devlin, that she is not only entitled but morally obliged to accept the risks that go with the job, she is scathing in her response. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I look at you, sir, and I don’t want to be like you anymore. I don’t want to die for people who don’t really give a shit.”
The novel compares favourably with William McGivern’s THE BIG HEAT, in which an ostensibly upright cop quickly turns rogue vigilante when his family are murdered by the corrupt forces infiltrating his police department. McGilloway too illustrates that the personal is the political in the narrative arc that takes Devlin from passive observer to active player in the rogues gallery of compromised public officials who populate GALLOWS LANE. It offers a bleaker vision of modern Ireland than its predecessor, a more cynical evaluation of the poisoned body politic; even in the ending, which offers the traditional note of hope that the system can be leached of its toxins, McGilloway can’t help but qualify the illusion of closure. “Assuming Shane was stirring for a bottle, I went into his room. He was already standing in his cot, his arms gripping the vertical bars, a juvenile prisoner. When he saw me, he raised his arms to be lifted and fell backwards, landing softly on his rump.”
Eugene McEldowney’s Superintendent Cecil McGarry is the godfather of the Irish policier, but writers such as Tana French, Ingrid Black and Gene Kerrigan have taken up the baton in recent years. It is probably no coincidence that two of those writers are working journalists; if journalism is the first draft of history, crime fiction is the finished article that probes the roots of our culture’s morality. Brian McGilloway – a teacher, as it happens – is to the forefront of this vanguard, and GALLOWS LANE is a superb example of why crime fiction is not just important, but essential. – Declan Burke
Disclaimer: It should be noted that Brian McGilloway was kind enough to thank Declan Burke, among many others, in his list of acknowledgments in GALLOWS LANE. If anyone has any issues about bias arising from this fact, please outline your complaint in block capital letters on the back of used €50 note and send it to The Grand Vizier, c/o the Crime Always Pays Slush Fund, Filthy Lucre Towers, Blaggerville, Cape Wonga, The Maldive Islands. We thank you for your cooperation
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.