- Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
I’ve followed Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series for years now, ever since I flew through his Troubles Trilogy, only to jump up and down with happiness when I realized he planned to continue the series. With the release of McKinty’s latest, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, I found an opportunity to interview the man himself, rather than just talking to the internet about how much I love his books. Thanks to Seventh Street Books for bringing his works to the states, and thanks to Adrian for letting me ask him a series of rather long questions.
Molly Odintz: So the idea that Sean Duffy can quit smoking is rather laughable to me. Will he ever get his health together in the context of life in such a stressful position?
Adrian McKinty: I seriously doubt it. I knew many coppers in that era and all of them were huge social drinkers and chain smokers that you would be foolish to try and keep up with. But there’s always hope. I think he’s probably off the cocaine for good now which is nice.
MO: In your latest, you show how entrenched and mafia-like the paramilitaries have become by the late 80s, especially when it comes to drug crimes. By the late 80s, do you think more paramilitaries were motivated by power and money than politics?
AM: By the early 80s it was obvious that the Troubles were not going to end anytime soon so the smarter/more cynical ones diversified into protect rackets and drugs. At a famous meeting in Belfast in 1985 supposedly mortal enemies the IRA and UVF met to divide Belfast into drug territories. And that is still the case to this very day.
“Life in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s was utterly surreal and bizarre. There’s no other way to talk about it except in wry tones, cynical tones with shades of black humor and horror.”
MO: Like many of your Duffy novels, a small crime reveals a vast conspiracy. Without getting specific on the plot details, how do you craft a story that starts so small and gets so big?
AM: It’s different every time, sometimes you write the story and ideas pop up but other times you do the research and start plotting….I recently finished a 42 page synopsis for a book I haven’t written yet, which is a new record for me…maybe that was a bit excessive but it’s smart to map out the territory esp in a twisty conspiracy.
MO: You do an excellent job of showing how the Troubles weren’t one continuous pitched battle, but lots of little flareups, based on how closely paramilitaries, soldiers, police and civilians adhered to a set of complex social behaviors. Ordinary life continues, but in severely curtailed forms. How do you pick the moments for your settings? How much were the Troubles an excuse to be a libertine (for example, Duffy’s drug use) versus reinforcing conservative behavior standards (for example, marriage within one’s primary religious group)?
AM: That’s an excellent question. Remember I was a school kid in the 80s and every day even after a major bombing or atrocity life went on as normal. We had to get up and go to school. And people had to shop, work, get unemployment whatever in the midst of this low level civil war. Some weeks it felt comparatively normal but other times it felt like a war, like the evacuation of Aleppo or something. It’s been a challenge to convey that tone in these novels and also not to forget the mordant, black (very black) Belfast humour that people used as a coping mechanism.
MO: Duffy’s gone domestic, but he’s still in as much danger as ever. What did you want to explore about having a family in a troubled time?
AM: I like the idea of encumbering a lone wolf with wife and child. Makes his life more difficult and interesting for me as a novelist. I’m not knocking other mystery thrillers here but I get a bit weary with series titles that merely hit the reset button at the beginning of each instalment. I like characters who change and arc and grow….
MO: I love how you point out the absurdities within a serious situation without detracting from the reader’s sense of imminent danger for the characters, a skill shared by many of the great noir writers. Is that the genre talking, or a cynicism entirely your own?
AM: Life in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s was utterly surreal and bizarre. There’s no other way to talk about it except in wry tones, cynical tones with shades of black humor and horror. Sometimes something would happen that seemed like a classic French farce or an episode of Fawlty Towers, other times your heart was breaking….Tonally that’s a BIG challenge to get across. The crime novel, the noir crime novel in particular is a great vector for those kind of ideas…
“….I was a school kid in the 80s and every day even after a major bombing or atrocity life went on as normal. We had to get up and go to school. And people had to shop, work, get unemployment whatever in the midst of this low level civil war…”
MO: I know you considered Duffy’s story finished after you completed the Troubles Trilogy, but you’ve returned to the character multiple times and I couldn’t be happier about it. There seem to be an endless number of tales of corruption, cynicism, greed, and failed revolution for Duffy to explore. What’s next for him?
AM: I’m afraid I have no idea about that one. I’ll know in a few months what’s next. Hopefully.
MO: Northern Ireland has a long and complex history, and in your Duffy series, you’ve focused on the 1980s, which seems the perfect setting for a mixture of violent crime and decadent music. If you were to write a historical crime novel set in a different period of Northern Ireland’s history, what settings would you want to explore?
AM: Oh my God I would love to do Belfast today, right now. It’s so weird to go back there with its trendy cafes and Michelin starred restaurants, Game of Thrones tours, hipster bars, stag and hen nights, celebrity spotting and remember the apocalyptic nightmare of just 2 1/2 decades earlier….
MO: How would the Duffy novels read differently, do you think, if they had been written in the midst of the Troubles? Does a writer need a certain distance from their subject matter to properly tackle the traumas of history (at least, via crime novel)?
AM: I think if I’d written these books in the 80s or even 90s they would be a lot angrier and more bitter. You definitely need to get a perspective on people. I don’t say tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner but I do feel temporal and geographic distance helps a lot.
You can find copies of Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.