Book review: Rain Dogs

SET in Northern Ireland in 1987, Rain Dogs is the fifth in Adrian McKinty’s series of novels featuring RUC detective Sean Duffy. 

Adrian McKinty

Serpent’s Tail €17.99

When the body of Lily Bigelow is discovered inside Carrickfergus Castle early one morning, it looks as if the young British journalist has taken her own life. 

Duffy has his doubts, some of which are shared by his colleagues McCrabban and Lawson, but the alternative is that Lily Bigelow was murdered in a place, and at a time, when it would have been impossible for a killer to get in or out of the castle.

The internal tension of the early Sean Duffy stories (a Catholic policeman viewed with suspicion by his largely Protestant and frequently sectarian colleagues) is no longer a factor in the series, given that Duffy has long since proven himself a capable, if occasionally maverick, detective.

Indeed, the Troubles barely intrude on the events of Rain Dogs, even if the story, as is generally the case with the Duffy novels, is rooted in historical events.

Duffy’s investigation into Lily Bigelow’s death leads him to the Kincaid Young Offenders Institution in Belfast, where it appears that young boys in care are being exploited by “a paedophile ring operating at the highest levels of British government” (the Kincaid institution stands in here for the Kincora Boys’ Home, which was engulfed in a sex abuse scandal at the beginning of the 1980s).

Despite the dark subject matter, Rain Dogs makes for a breezy, blackly humourous read, particularly when McKinty (now living in Australia) has Duffy hold forth on his home town: “Carrickfergus had an embarrassment of abandoned factories that had been set up in the optimistic sixties, closed in the pessimistic seventies and were on the verge of ruin, now that we were in the apocalyptic eighties.”

The fact that Sean Duffy finds himself investigating his second locked-room mystery becomes something of a running joke. 

“Policemen in Northern Ireland do not get two locked-room mysteries in one career”, Duffy declares, which leads his subordinate Lawson to offer Bayes’s theorem on conditional probability to explain how it might actually be possible; meanwhile, Duffy spends half the story telling us that he is not Miss Marple, Gideon Fell, Inspector Maigret, Hercule Poirot, or any other fictional refugee from the Golden Age of locked-room mysteries.

He protests too much, although it’s fair to say Sean Duffy is more typical of the conventional hardboiled detective than he is of the Golden Age’s sleuths, a classic anti-authority loner who struggles to sustain any personal relationship other than the one he maintains with the nearest bottle or mind-altering substance.

Which is to say, Adrian McKinty is steeped in the crime novel’s lore and traditions; what is equally clear is the pleasure he takes in exploring the parameters of the police procedural, subverting expectations and poking fun at the tropes and conventions (chapters titled Ed McBain’s Notebook and Jimmy Savile’s Caravan give a flavour of the irreverent approach).

The most enjoyable aspect of the novel, however, is McKinty’s unsentimental prose, a stark style that employs a terse, brutal poetry to evoke startling imagery.

“I walked past the wreck of the Volvo,” Duffy tells us in the wake of a car bomb that has just killed Chief Inspector McBain.

“The rear of the vehicle was completely gone and the rest was like some kind of abstract sculpture that Ballard might have liked. A headless torso covered with a blanket was in the driver’s seat.”

All told, it’s a deliciously readable tale.

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