As a massive Tom Waits fan, I’m a sucker for a book that uses his lyrics as an epigraph so The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty won me over before I even started reading. Thankfully though, the book itself did not disappoint.
The story is set in 1981 in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. It’s an evocative period, with the news full of the Republican hunger strikes at the Maze prison, the Yorkshire Ripper running rampant in England and the biggest Royal Wedding – that of Charles and Diana –taking over the public imagination.
Detective Sean Duffy is an anomaly. He is a Catholic police officer in the predominantly Protestant RUC, who also happens to live in the predominantly Protestant town of Carrickfergus, outside Belfast. He fits with neither side of the conflict, not fully accepted by either community, but this remove allows him to watch from the sidelines and question what others might take for granted.
When two homosexual men are killed, Duffy fears that a homophobic serial killer is on the loose despite feeling that the idea itself is ‘too gothic for Ulster’.
Not everybody in Ulster was … crazy, but this was Northern Ireland in 1981 which was slightly less conservative than, say, Salem in 1692
His colleagues don’t understand his reasoning. In Northern Ireland, if you want to kill people, you just have to join a paramilitary organisation – there are plenty of outlets for sadistic violent behaviour if that is your thing. But Duffy is not entirely convinced that these crimes are sectarian in nature.
There had never been a gay serial killer. Northern Ireland was not the soil in which serial killers grew. If you wanted to murder a lot of people, you joined the paramilitaries and used that as a cover for your sociopathic tendencies.
Duffy is also drawn to the case of a missing girl, Lucy Moore. When her body is found, it is ruled as suicide but with an ex-husband on hunger strike in the Maze and no explanation for her initial disappearance, Duffy senses something is not quite right and has a feeling that his two cases may be linked.
The Cold Cold Ground is a punchy, well-paced thriller that stands out for several reasons. McKinty mixes reality and fiction to great effect. Gerry Adams makes an appearance, as does the Unionist George Seawright, while the character of Freddie Scavanni is a clear reference to the famous Stakeknife informer Freddie Scappattici. Yet, a knowledge of the history of the Troubles isn’t necessary to enjoy the book.
By setting much of his action outside of Belfast, in the suburban and insular Carrickfergus, McKinty explores a different side to the Troubles, one where violence is ever present but not all-encompassing. He is also great on period detail, bring the early 80s to vivid life with references to yucca plants, the Encyclopedia Britannica and the advent of the DeLorean motor car.
Crime-fiction tropes are present of course, the flawed but cultured police officer, the beautiful female pathologist and the serial killer who enters into a cat and mouse game with the cop who is chasing him, but McKinty injects enough lyrical prose and political insight to create a dark yet sizzling world that is reminiscent of the work of David Peace.
The good news for me is that there are four more books in the Sean Duffy series (and a couple more Tom Waits references in their titles!) which I will definitely be checking out.
Read On: Book
Number Read: 179
Number Remaining: 567
20 Books of Summer: 2/20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!