- Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
We read a wide array of international detective fiction here at MysteryPeople, and, of course, we each have our favorites. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day (and even more in honor of the year-round excellence that defines Irish crime fiction) we’re highlighting some work, past and present, from our favorite Irish detective novelists. Last Thursday, Scott Montgomery took us through an underappreciated new classic – Cross, by Ken Bruen. Today, we’re diving into Adrian McKinty’s latest Sean Duffy novel, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, released this March, and which just so happens to feature a few words of praise for the author on the back cover from yours truly.
Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series, set in the 80s in Northern Ireland, weaves real events (such as Margaret Thatcher’s attempted assassination, the closing of the Delorian factory, and Muhammed Ali’s visit to the troubled region) together with fiendishly plotted mysteries. McKinty doesn’t use his crime fiction to paint a black and white portrait of good and evil – his settings are too historically messy, his characters too finely crafted, to devolve into stereotype. In McKinty’s Duffy series, paramilitaries commit petty crimes for personal reasons; corrupt officials occasionally compensate for their fall from grace with a touch of honor; policemen steal drugs from the evidence room…In short, no easy line exists between the personal and the political, and even though most plotlines trace back to MI5 or the IRA, it’s never for the reasons one would think.
His latest, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, starts with Duffy on a late night walk from an IRA assassination squad, then backtracks to an unusual murder for Belfast – death by crossbow. A drug dealer has been shot in the back, and when Duffy arrives at the crime scene, he can already tell this case will not go smoothly. His supervisor and the forensics team have come and gone, just long enough to mess up the crime scene, and his stoic partner’s been stabbed (not fatally) by the dealer’s weeping widow. As Duffy starts to look into the dealer’s death, he has trouble discovering a motive for the man’s demise. After all, he paid up in protection money to the paramilitaries, and vigilante justice outside of the paras would hardly have been welcomed in the hardcore paramilitary-controlled neighborhood in which the dealer was found.
A case starting off in chaos? Duffy can handle that. He’s beset by plenty of other problems, though, and his personal life may combine with his professional life to inspire Duffy once and for all to toss in the towel. A health inspection leads to orders to quit smoking immediately and curtail his drinking as much as possible (those familiar with Duffy’s addictions may chuckle at the idea that he could possibly be expected to give up smoking). His new supervisor has risen to the level of his own incompetence, proof that in an oppressive state, the bureaucrat climbs to power while the talented fail to break through the glass ceiling of mediocrity. His girlfriend’s prosperous Protestant father wants the family to move to the countryside, but Duffy’s happy living on Coronation Road, where he knows his neighbors, he knows which of his neighbors have machine guns, and especially, he knows which of those neighbors might be willing to come to his aid. Adding to Sean’s stress is a resurgence of the Troubles brought on by attacks on civilian attendees at two paramilitary funerals.
As Duffy investigates the dealer’s murder, seemingly a small-time affair in a country consumed by politicized violence, he encounters missing files, escalating threats, and increasing suspicion that this case may connect to the Troubles in a wholly unsuspected manner. Now that Duffy’s got a family, he may have finally given up on his death wish, but others still seek an end to his questions and will do what they can to put the man and his family in danger. Even those readers who’ve gotten used to the dangers faced by a Catholic policeman in 1980s Northern Ireland will experience a few heart-pounding moments of worry.
Like much of the best international crime fiction, McKinty’s Sean Duffy novels overlap with historical fiction, and while reading McKinty’s latest, I got to thinking about one of my favorite literary concepts. Bakhtin’s literary concept of the chronotope, inspired by Einstein’s theory of relativity, posits that space and time are intertwined and thus must be examined together – not only in science, but in the study of literature and history, and in the study of passage of time and description of place within a contained work. International crime fiction takes place equally in time and space. When we read historical crime fiction set in other countries, at other times, we experience a doubled window into the chronotope of that space, in that time. In crime fiction set now, we experience the geography of setting as a chronotope, where each street holds the weight of its history.
Adrian McKinty’s works help fill in the many layered chronotope of Northern Ireland in the 1980s, a time period marked by disillusionment and strife. His distance from his setting – both in time and space – lends a wider perspective to each work in the series, but the problems of the period hit home with small details as much as vast conspiracies. When Duffy checks under his car for mercury tilt bombs, he does it casually, because he’s been living in a state of perpetual violence for decades. If this book were a memoir by a real-life Duffy, he probably wouldn’t even mention such an everyday occurrence. For the reader, this everyday act pushes us past our knowledge of the Troubles’ eventual end, and into the mindset of those experiencing the ever-present violence of a conflict with seemingly no end.
You can find copies of Police at the Station on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.