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.Adrian McKinty’s latest novel opens in the spring of 1981, with a group of RUC officers watching a Belfast riot from afar. The action is described in the first person by Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, a Catholic in the predominantly Protestant RUC. The backdrop to the riots is the ongoing hunger strikes, although Duffy and his cohorts are a little disappointed with this particular riot:
And all this through a lens of oleaginous Belfast rain. - Adrian McKinty, THE COLD COLD GROUND
“In fact we had seen better only last week when, in the hospital wing of The Maze Prison, IRA commander Bobby Sands had finally popped his clogs.”Against the powder-keg backdrop of the hunger strikes, DS Duffy investigates a number of murders that appeared to be linked: a homophobic serial killer seems to be targeting homosexuals. Given that Northern Ireland has had no previous experience of a serial killer, however, Duffy has his doubts, and believes that the murders may be perpetrated by someone using the homophobia, and the ongoing tension related to the hunger strikes, as an excuse to settle some personal, paramilitary-related scores …
DS Sean Duffy is a fascinating character, being a Catholic police officer in a predominantly Protestant RUC at the time of the hunger strikes. This immediately gives his story an extra frisson, as sectarianism was at its height (or nadir) in Northern Ireland during the early 1980s. In fact, and despite being a police officer, DS Duffy keeps his religion a secret from his neighbours, allowing them to presume that he is a Protestant.
That said, the sectarianism Duffy faces doesn’t necessarily lend itself to conflict. At work, for example, Duffy and his co-workers engage in sectarian banter in which Duffy gives as good as he gets. As often as not, the sectarianism manifests itself as lazy stereotyping; his Protestant superiors, for example, simply presume that Duffy, being a Catholic, must know virtually every other Catholic in Northern Ireland.
Away from work, Duffy is the antithesis of the ultra-conservative RUC officer. He listens to the period’s more adventurous rock music, and occasionally smokes dope. He appears to be more laidback about life in general than his colleagues, particularly in terms of the sectarianism of Northern Ireland. When it becomes clear that a killer is targeting homosexuals, Duffy is much less homophobic in his attitude towards the gay community than most of his colleagues.
It’s easy to see why McKinty picked the hunger strikes for a backdrop: the setting provides immediate tension, a sharply divided society, and a very vivid backdrop of continuous rioting. By the same token, the hunger strikes are still hugely important in the psyche of Northern Ireland, and have iconic status in large parts of the Catholic / Nationalist community. Any crime writer deploying the hunger strikes as a backdrop runs the risk of being accused of exploiting the period, and the sacrifices made, for the sake of a crime thriller.
Having said all that, I got the impression that McKinty picked the hunger strikes for the backdrop to this novel not just because it would provide instant tension, but because that period, arguably, represented the nadir of the Troubles, and so serves as a kind of crucible for the worst that humanity is capable of.
It’s worth mentioning, I think, that there has been very little by way of serial killer novels in Ireland until very recently. The only explicit examples I can think of are Rob Kitchin’s THE RULE BOOK and TABOO by Casey Hill, although it can be argued that Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE is a serial killer novel (in that particular case, the ‘serial killer’ is a sympathetic character, who kills to avenge others’ deaths). All three novels have appeared in the last two or three years. (Arlene Hunt’s novel THE CHOSEN is in part a serial killer novel, but that book is set in the US.)
This may be because Ireland itself has had no history of serial killers - officially, at least. By the same token, Ireland has lent itself over the years to being a place where a psychopath could very easily indulge a homicidal streak by signing up to one or another political / paramilitary creed. The Shankhill Butchers, for example, were serial killers in all but name.
As for the style, McKinty quickly establishes and maintains a pacy narrative, but he does a sight more too. McKinty brings a quality of muscular poetry to his prose, and the opening paragraph quoted above is as good an example as any. He belongs in a select group of crime writers, those you would read for the quality of their prose alone: James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Eoin McNamee, David Peace, James Ellroy.
I should probably have pointed out before beginning this review that I’ve been a fan of Adrian McKinty’s work since his first novel, DEAD I WELL MAY BE. I think he’s one of the best crime writers currently working today, and I also think that THE COLD COLD GROUND is his best novel since his debut. Given its backdrop, and the fact that the hunger strikes are still to a great extent a taboo subject in fiction, I would also argue that THE COLD COLD GROUND is an important novel too. - Declan Burke