IN the light of Brexit and the talk of soft and hard borders, this is a topical novel as it is set on the blackthorn-hedged borders of Northern Ireland and the Republic.
It is a deeply atmospheric and poetically written Emerald noir which examines crimes with roots dating back to the dark days of the Troubles.
Anthony J Quinn confesses to being ‘a thwarted poet’ who undertook to write crime novels to add plot to his themes.
He is good at juxtaposing the outer landscape of the border counties with the inner landscape of his characters.
Detective Celcius Daly, a divorced 44-year-old, wonders not only about his life in the police force but about life itself as he tries to avoid the ‘downward pull of the past’.
Quinn is good on silence and Daly’s struggle with his Catholic faith as he follows the solicitor Rebecca Hewson to a church.
There he resists the imploring face of Jesus on the cross where the detective’s ‘heart did not move… and the quietness of the church deepened’.
Daly has been relegated to court duty because he is under internal investigation for his possible involvement in the disappearance of a spy.
Daly’s own mother was murdered during those turbulent times, but the horrible impact of this on the son could have been brought out more and is only cursorily referenced throughout the novel.
The same applies to his scant reflections on his divorce and one wonders if maybe a new love interest could have enhanced the non-professional roundedness of his character.
When Hewson’s son goes missing from the court house Daly is tasked with the investigation. Suspicion lies with a group of Travellers and Quinn, a former social worker, shows great insight into the world of these marginalised people.
Daly himself, as one side-lined in the force and inhabiting his father’s old rundown cottage on the shore of Lough of Neagh, identifies with them: ‘His fear of uprootedness and not belonging; his inability to shake off the notion that deep down he was a stranger too’ in the wake of the long Troubles and his own involvement in them.
Despite his contemporaries buying new houses, contemptuously deemed ‘trophy properties’ by Daly and which Quinn indulges three pages in describing, the cottage was the only place in which Daly could feel at home.
It is interesting that the wealthy Traveller Thomas O’Sullivan, head of a trading empire, shared a similar feeling with Daly. O’Sullivan bought a lavish mansion in Duncannon but, unable to change his nomadic way of life, could not bring himself live in it. Quinn portrays O’Sullivan as a person of high ideals who may speak too well to be utterly convincing but shows a disdain for capitalism, putting family honour to the fore.
Daly lives a lonely life with no children for miles around and old farmers and their wives ‘floating along in their solitary routines like weeds trailing in a stagnant pond’.
His probing gets murkier as suspicion hovers over politicians and sectarian powers including the Strong Ulster Foundation who are intent on buying up border farms left vacant after the recession to ensure that no Catholics will come into ownership of them.
Matters become even more complicated when it is learned that the missing boy apparently went willingly with the Travellers.
While the prose is of a high quality generally, there are some unnecessary words such as ‘dark’ with shadows and ‘shoulders’ with shrugged and maybe one too many crows ‘hovered out of the leaden air’.
Also, sometimes there are author intrusions in the dialogue and circumlocutory passages slowing down the pace, but the plot speeds up as the sense of menace increases and there are exquisite moments of high tension as Daly makes his way through the night forest to locate the missing boy.
James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll; www.jameslawless.net
Anthony J Quinn
Head of Zeus, €21 hb/€9.50 pb;
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