THE TRUTH COMMISSIONER is neither a thriller nor a whodunit, a detective novel nor a policier, and yet at its heart lies the abduction, torture and murder of a teenage boy, a series of events that still has the power, many years later in the present day, to destroy the lives of four men. Beginning with a taut prologue describing the hours leading up to the boy’s death (“He’s never been anywhere he has never been,” runs the opening line), David Park immediately sets the scene of the post-Troubles landscape in Northern Ireland, an uncharted territory observed with an unflinching eye as the fictional Truth Commission, a conceit borrowed from the South African experience of Truth and Reconciliation, prepares to rake over the coals of 30 years of atrocity and counter-atrocity. Northern Ireland, claims Henry Stanfield, the truth commissioner, is “an old manged, flea-infested dog returning to inspect its own sick,” a place of tawdry but necessary self-delusions: “Hard to lift your head above it in a godforsaken land, he tells himself, where a ship that sank and an alcoholic footballer are considered holy icons.”
Of the four main characters – Stanfield; Fenton, an ex-RUC officer; Gilroy, once an IRA activist and now a Sinn Fein minister in the Stormont Assembly; and Danny, an Irishman with a shadowy past now living in America – it is Stanfield, as an Englishman drafted in to the reconciliation process and ostensibly an unbiased outsider, who sets the tone. Innocent of any taint accruing from the boy’s disappearance and death, he is nonetheless guilty of the one quality Northern Ireland cannot afford as it considers the possibilities of its future, that of unremitting cynicism. “For a second he thinks of trying to explain that the truth is rarely a case of what will be gained, so much as a case of what might be lost …” [ …] “ … but what he wants to tell her is that the truth can’t be deserved, that if it exists at all, it exists outside the constraints of need or personal desire. That truth rarely makes anything better and often makes it worse.”
Told in the present tense, the novel should be a more visceral affair than it is, particularly given its subject matter, but Park is a self-consciously literary writer and his formal and occasionally florid delivery has a distancing effect that is too consistent to be anything other than deliberate. Park, himself a native of Northern Ireland, appears to be suggesting that when it comes to the outworkings of the Troubles, in the course of which former terrorists become government ministers, and paramilitary organisations shorn of political respectability descend into a more prosaic criminality, we are all helpless to do anything but observe and hope for the best.
Someone once observed that anyone who thinks they know the answer to Northern Ireland doesn’t understand the question, and thus Park ends on a hopeful but pragmatic note, which is pleasing in that it is a realistic, unsentimental appraisal of how far Northern Ireland still has to travel before its normality becomes so unremarkable that there is no need of ‘the great post-Troubles novel’. THE TRUTH COMMISSIONER is not that novel, but David Park has done the statelet some service by setting a high standard for those who will follow. – Declan Burke
“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.