Taboo or not taboo, that is the question. Adrian McKinty’s latest novel, THE COLD COLD GROUND, has for its backdrop one of the most contentious topics in recent Irish history, the IRA hunger strikes of 1981.THE COLD COLD GROUND by Adrian McKinty is published by Serpent’s Tail.
“It is a taboo subject,” McKinty agrees. “In fact, the whole Troubles era is still a taboo. I had a conversation with a BBC NI producer once, we were discussing a potential commission. He was completely aghast when I told him that I wanted to do something about the Troubles. ‘That’s all behind us now, we want to look to the future,’ he said. Well, it isn’t behind me. I’ll never forget those days.
“It’s also true,” he adds, “that if no one wants to talk about something, then that’s probably the very thing you should be talking about.”
Born in 1968 in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, McKinty grew up a child of the Troubles.
“My memories of that time are so vivid that it was pretty easy coming up with material for the book,” he says. “For example, I used to get a lift to school from a neighbour who was a Major in the UDR. Every morning he would get down on his knees and check under his car for mercury-tilt bombs, and when he got the all-clear he would call my little brother, me and his son outside and we would get in the car and go to school. But then one day it was raining hard, and he decided just to skip it and called us out without checking under the car. Every week on the news you’d hear about a copper or a soldier, and sometimes their families, who were killed by a mercury-tilt device. So on that ride to school I literally thought I was going to die.”
If you’re a writer, there are no such things as bad memories, only experiences to be retro-fitted for the sake of a story.
“Of course,” he grins, “like the self-consuming novelist I am, I took the memory and put it in the book. But it was really an extraordinary time and the more I probed my own recollections, the more those gates opened. A lot of them were bad memories: the time I got knocked down by a police Land Rover in a hit-and-run, the fight I got into with a paramilitary hood and ended up with 18 stitches in my face, the time I planted a bullet in my sister’s handbag to see what would happen at a police checkpoint, our next door neighbour getting arrested for a triple homicide by seemingly half the British Army, bomb scares, bombs, riots … So, yeah, they sound like bad memories. But in many ways, they’re gold for a writer.”
THE COLD COLD GROUND centres on Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, who investigates a series of murders that appear to be the work of a killer taking advantage of the tensions created by the hunger strikes. As the name suggests, Sean Duffy is a Catholic. Why did McKinty, himself a Protestant, choose a Catholic RUC man for the hero of his book?
“There were a couple of reasons,” he says. “I wanted Duffy to arrive in East Antrim as an outsider, and as an outsider he could cast a jaundiced eye on the toxic politics and culture of the area. And of course, I knew that as a Catholic Duffy would run right up against all the fault lines of the time, which would be tremendous material for a novelist. I grew up in a working class Protestant housing estate and I loved the idea of putting a cynical intellectual like Duffy in among those people. And as a Catholic copper, Duffy can never be completely comfortable in his own skin or in the company he keeps. His life is literally on the line every single day.
“That he’s a Catholic in the RUC in 1981 would have been incredibly rare back then,” he says. “The IRA famously had a bounty on Catholic policemen and the RUC was completely distrusted by the Catholic community, so few joined. The force in that era would have been over 90% Protestant. So you’ve got a gifted but conflicted and fractured young man in a very hot-house environment.”
McKinty has written six adult crime titles previous to THE COLD COLD GROUND (he also writes children’s fiction), but this is his first police procedural novel. Why the change in direction?
“To be honest, I was never that enthused about the police procedural story,” he says, “but then I got to know Evan Hunter [Ed McBain] a little bit before he died, and I started reading his fantastic 87th precinct books and I gradually saw the possibilities of that type of book. What finally sold me was reading James Ellroy’s LA Quartet, which are fascinating takes on the procedural, and by then I knew that this was a genre I wanted to tackle.”
THE COLD COLD GROUND blends the police procedural with a serial killer storyline, a rare development in the Irish crime novel, which has seen very few serial killer stories published despite the recent boom in Irish crime fiction.
Is this because, officially at least, we have no record of a serial killer operating in Ireland?
“I don’t know about the South,” says McKinty, “but in the North, serial killers just get absorbed into the paramilitaries. I knew several clearly deranged individuals who were high ranking paramilitaries. The Shankhill Butchers and Michael Stone are just a couple of examples of psychopaths who probably would have been ordinary, everyday serial killers had they grown up in a non-sectarian society.”
McKinty currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. Is it the case that he needed to travel to the other side of the planet before he could start writing about home?
McKinty’s novels have been very well received to date, particularly, and unusually, as audio books. The Dead Year (2007) won the ‘Audie’ for Best Thriller / Suspense Novel, while Audible.com chose last year’s offering Falling Glass as the Best Mystery / Thriller of 2011.
“That’s all down to the narrator, I think,” says McKinty. “If you can get a good narrator, you’re in like Flynn. I’ve been fortunate with Gerard Doyle, who is incredibly popular and much sought after. I’m pretty sure if I’d done a Le Carré or a Douglas Adams and narrated the books myself, it would have been a complete disaster.”
THE COLD COLD GROUND is being touted as the first of a proposed trilogy, and McKinty is looking forward to exploring Northern Ireland in the 1980s through DS Duffy’s eyes.
“I’ve got so much material about that time and place and there are many more interesting places the character can go,” he says. “I’d love to get him in some kind of confrontation with the Thatcher government, for example, or get mixed up in the DeLorean disaster, or any number of things. And of course, musically, we’ll eventually have to get to his difficult ‘New Romantic’ years …”
This interview was first published in the Irish Examiner.