Adrian McKinty

Serpent’s Tail

ISBN978 1 84668 823 2

The Cold Cold Ground,  involves an RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary – now PSNI, the Police Service of Northern Ireland) criminal detective Sean (sic) Duffy. His position as a (Northern Ireland) Catholic in an overwhelmingly ‘Protestant’ environment is lightly handled. A colleague in an armoured personnel carrier apologises for using ‘sectarian’ language when patrolling a ‘Taig’ area of Carrickfergus, the south Antrim port of which Duffy is a native.

Adrian McKinty is a native of that place too, which makes the descriptions of the town and its layout ring true, though no doubt some things have been ‘moved around’ to keep the story uncluttered. The story involves a number of disparate killings that Duffy, an under-promoted Detective Sergeant (he has “solved six murders prior to this”) feels are connected. He dismisses involvement by the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) or the UDA (Ulster Defence Association – including its (‘killing wing’ covers most eventualities), the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters). A ‘drug scene’ was only a gleam in south Belfast Hoods’ eyes at this juncture (the UDA has probably ousted them, but the UVF, while tolerating low level drug taking takes a pretty hard line against the trade. The looser UDA is characteristically all over the place about ‘drugs’, especially as most working class areas in Northern Ireland function on a cocktail of cheap booze and prescription tranquilisers.

Duffy has all sorts of adventures in this narrative, he is part of a riot squad mobilised to police the Falls Road / Andersonstown areas of west Belfast the evening of the day of Bobby Sands’ death. That seems unlikely, as there were already hordes of police and army on standby. He does make the point that his team witnessed the clashes from Knockagh ‘mountain’. I wondered if this was a hint to some readers that some elements in this book were insisted on by the publishers. Knockagh was where various ‘Loyalist’ paramilitary’s dumped ‘enemies of Ulster’ they had killed. They were to a person (some women were killed too), entirely innocent Catholic shift workers, drunks, or those just on the streets at the ‘wrong’ time.

Back to the book; this is a well-written thriller with a number of sub-themes, the statutory ‘love interest’ (a sexy surgeon), the nosy ‘spook[s]’, military as well as police, even nosey neighbours (Duffy, perforce, lives in a heavy-duty Loyalist area – a divorcé, he can’t afford to live in a police ghetto in pricey north Down) which brings him into daily, unpleasant proximity with real, and would-be, Loyalist hard-boys. There are some oddities here Duffy joins the RUC as a result of an encounter with the nasty realities of life in 1970 Belfast. It would much more likely to have driven him into the IRA (the given reasons are off-hand and unlikely; nasty Catholics being beastly to police personnel). Given that the police were, in part anyway, a gendarmerie better-armed than the average Brit squaddie, and enthusiastically beating any sign of political dissent, much less violence, in Taig / Catholic areas, it is out of time – but then there would not have been a story.

Intertwined among the bodies and bullies is the killing of Gay men by a ‘moral’ avenger. This, like a number of other matters in this book, seems to be based on actuality. There were a (largish) number of killings of queer men in Belfast in the 1980s. Some, that of Anthony (Tony) McCleave, being particularly brutal (he was impaled by the throat from the spikes on the railings around the Albert Memorial (clock – Belfast’s ‘leaning tower’). The killer probably worked on the assumption that a mere queer’s family would be too embarrassed to push for a thorough police enquiry. He (it is extremely unlikely that it was a ‘she’) got the McCleave family wrong. They demanded and got a full inquiry, but it ran into the ground, there were no witnesses to the encounter between Tony and his killer, much less the actual killing.

Sinn Féin and the IRA appear here as groups without a history or ‘hinterland’, such an approach strained my credulity. It is possible the author, or his editors, thought the ‘RA was embedded in the reading public’s consciousness alongside the Nazis or Pol Pot. The attitude of the public in Great Britain to the “men [and women] of violence” is complex and changes over the years – and not always in ways the ‘political class’ and their media would approve.

This book is well worth reading; just remember it is a ‘police procedural’ cum thriller, not a documentary.

Seán McGouran

The Cold Cold Ground - Carrickfergus

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