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A crime thriller with a literary twist
THE COLD COLD GROUND
(Book One of the Troubles Trilogy)
By Adrian McKinty
340 pp. Seventh Street Books
Reviewed by Lindsay Lowe
When author Adrian McKinty was a kid, the neighbor who drove him to school checked under his car every morning to make sure no one had planted a bomb overnight. But sometimes “he would skip the check,” McKinty recalls, “and my little brother and I would be in the back seat waiting for the first hill when the bomb might go off.” McKinty grew up in Carrickfergus, a town in Northern Ireland that became a hub for the sectarian violence--bombings, riots, assassinations, and IRA hunger strikes--that plagued the country throughout the '80s and early '90s, during what the Irish call 'The Troubles'. McKinty witnessed all this chaos first-hand, and maybe that's why his latest crime thriller, set in Carrickfergus, feels so gritty and authentic.
In The Cold Cold Ground, we see Carrickfergus through the eyes of Sean Duffy, a young detective in the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary. Duffy, a Catholic, endures frequent anti-Catholic slurs from both his colleagues and the people he's investigating. Nearly all of the crimes he handles involve members of two Protestant paramilitary groups that are fighting to control the streets of Carrickfergus. But early on in the book, Duffy's beat changes when he is assigned a highly unusual case: a serial killer, apparently working alone, targeting gay men.
Duffy is a tough, street-smart cop, but he's not your typical hardboiled detective hero. He acts as if he could take or leave the women he sleeps with, but in reality he is devastated when Laura, a pathologist working on his murder case, coolly rejects him after a one-night stand. And without giving away too many details, his work on the gay serial killer case, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Northern Ireland, leads him to some surprising discoveries about his own sexuality. Duffy spends the second half of the novel running from those discoveries, and remains in denial through the end. Luckily, this is the first book in a forthcoming trilogy, sothere's time for him to do some soul-searching later on.
McKinty has seven other crime novels under his belt, and his experience shows in The Cold Cold Ground. He has an ear for snappy, economical dialogue that propels the story forward. He throws in just enough colloquial Irish phrases ('peeler' for cop, 'wean' for kid) to give the dialogue a regional flavor, but not so many that you have to constantly consult the glossary at the back of the book. Also, he has a knack for painting characters in swift, confident strokes. “He was one of those characters who felt that a weak handshake could somehow damage his authority, which meant that every handshake had to bloody hurt,” Duffy says of his boss, Brennan. He describes himself with similar directness: “Rangy, not muscled. Thirty years old but I looked thirty unlike my colleagues on sixty cigs a day.”
Duffy is a poet at heart, and he approaches his narration with a distinct literary sensibility. He draws spare, evocative images from the violence happening around him. “The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now,” the novel begins. “Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon…You needed a Picasso for this scene, not a poet.” At times, his poetic flourishes take odd turns into Celtic folklore, and sometimes the figurative language just doesn't work: “Rain had flooded the gutters. Liquid skitter clinging to the windows like a beaten wife clinging to a bad marriage.” On the whole, though, McKinty's expressive use of imagery elevates what could have been a boilerplate whodunit to a work of serious fiction.
For every lyrical image in the book, there are two or three gruesome ones. “Lucy had tried desperately to claw through the rope, had even managed to get a finger between the rope and her throat,” Duffy says upon discovering a young woman's body in the woods. “It hadn't done any good. She was blue. Her left eye was bulging out of its socket, her right eyeball had popped onto her cheek.” McKinty likes a bit of poetry, but he doesn't euphemize gore.
The grisly details never feel gratuitous, though; McKinty is intent on portraying the brutal realities of The Troubles. In that regard, The Cold Cold Ground is a fascinating piece of historical fiction, especially eye-opening for American readers who might not know the details of Northern Ireland's violent past. Sean Duffy proves a charismatic narrator--direct, quick-witted, and attentive to detail. He has trouble dealing with his emotions, but there's time for introspection in the next two books.