Maurice Leitch’s third book, Silver’s City, was one of the first novels to tackle the loyalist side of the Troubles head-on. Originally published in 1981, the book received little or negative attention in Northern Ireland, but went on to win the Whitbread Prize.
Leitch was no stranger to controversy, his first two books The Liberty Lad (1965) and Poor Lazarus (1969) were banned in the Republic of Ireland for their modern depictions of sexuality and deep-rooted Northern sectarianism.
Silver’s City may have been feted in the UK, but it soon fell out of print, until last year when it was republished by Turnpike Books.
Where once Ireland was seen as the land of poets, it seems now that you are more likely to come across a crime writer than someone writing in verse. There is a vast number of books now charting violence in Northern Ireland, both relating to the Troubles and to crime in general, but Silver’s City was, without doubt, a forerunner in the Irish crime genre.
The novel opens with a bravura sequence that borrows heavily from the noir classics. A car driving through the tree-lined avenues of Belfast ferries Ned Galloway, a loyalist paramilitary, to the door of a local doctor who he has been ordered to shoot. The job isn’t as clean as Galloway’s bosses would have liked and the next day, he is sent to spring local legend Silver Steele from prison hospital. Dubbed ‘the man who fired the first shot of the Troubles’ – Silver might be a loyalist hero, but he is ill and no longer has the stomach for, or the belief in the violence he once took part in.
He would never be able to cope in this mad world, he told himself, or with these mad people, for wasn’t it a sign of insanity that they had adapted themselves to the sudden see-sawings of violence? Some even embraced the idea of it avidly…
Paraded round local pubs and meeting places, Silver knows that he is just as much as prisoner under Galloway’s care as he ever was in prison, and Galloway and his men are beginning to realise that Silver is not about to fit in with their plans. Knowing that he is probably better off to the loyalists dead, Silver makes a bid for freedom with the help of Nan, a young naive prostitute, resulting in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Silver’s City is less a ‘Troubles’ fiction and more of a character study and by doing so manages to illuminate the world in which it is set. Leitch himself noted
I had no axe to grind, as it were, I was reading an awful lot about [The Troubles] in the news and really I just became totally interested in the three main characters – putting them together and seeing how things would turn out. By the end, they had taken over the novel.
By focusing on his characters and their motivations, Leitch brings an authenticity to the conflict in Northern Ireland that would have been far removed from anything else published at the time. This Belfast is seedy, tired. Silver soon realises that the paramilitaries he sees now are fighting a more aimless, arbitrary cause, which is as much about financial as it is sectarian concerns. He no longer recognises this volatile angry place as Silver’s city.
A city that always made you pay for your dreams
Silver does not want to engage anymore. He has seen that violence solves nothing and he wants to live out the rest of his life as quietly as he can. Galloway is the opposite. He despises the sloppiness and aimlessness of his fellow paramilitaries and wants to up the game. Nan, working as a Receptionist at a loyalist-run brothel, is realising all too quickly how little control she has on her life and sees Silver as a way out from a situation that is spiraling out of her control.
Stylistically, Silver’s City nods to noir. A poster of Sam Spade on a bedroom wall echoes the hard-boiled, filmic quality of the writing, which is dark and gritty like the city it so devastatingly depicts.
Where the novel succeeds is in showing the corrosive effect of how the acceptance of casual violence seeps slowly into a city and into the lives of its inhabitants. By exploring his theme through the lives of these three characters, Leitch subtly depicts the desolate and self-defeating role of the Troubles on a whole country.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!