DESPERATE times call for desperate measures. So when Irish author, Adrian McKinty, was without a tree on Christmas Eve, and staring at a small forest of firs in a Melbourne suburb, he took matters — and an axe left behind by an absent Russian tree dealer — into his own hands.
“I don’t know if that’s a year’s bad luck, or if that’s how it works,” McKinty says. “But stealing a Christmas tree — that can’t be a good thing, karma-wise.”
It’s unlikely to be a bad year for the Carrickfergus native. In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, the third novel in McKinty’s Seán Duffy trilogy, has been published to glowing reviews. Duffy is a Catholic policeman in the RUC in the 1980s. The book revolves around the Brighton bombing in 1984, when the IRA targeted Margaret Thatcher during a Conservative Party conference.
The release of official British government documents relating to that period, earlier this month, has given the historical backdrop to In the Morning I’ll Be Gone another layer.
“There was a story in the Guardian that when the Brighton bombing happened, the British government were negotiating with the IRA’s Army Council for a ceasefire, and that negotiations were quite advanced,” says McKinty.
“And then the Brighton bomb happened, obviously, and those negotiations were put back by about five years. It looks, to me, like this was one faction of the IRA Army Council working against another faction, and that the operation hadn’t been completely authorised, or that it was a power-play within the Army Council. The whole thing is fascinating. And then there’s the fact that Thatcher escaped, as well. There’s a lot about that bombing that I think we’ll never find out the truth about.”
Although the new book is billed as the concluding act of a trilogy, McKinty says that the Troubles are a sufficiently bizarre backdrop to provide Duffy with ample scope to return.
“There’s that crazy story that no-one’s ever talked about,” he says, “when Oliver North came to Ireland looking to get weapons to the Iran contras. He tried to get weapons from the UVF, and found they were a bunch of jokers. Then, he tried to get them from the IRA and the IRA didn’t trust him. So, then he had to go to the Israelis. That could be a fun story.
“It certainly won’t be a Lee Child-style, 17-book cycle,” he says, “but there’s maybe a couple more Duffy stories left. That said, if I only ever write the trilogy, then I’m happy enough — or as happy as I ever get in my dour Presbyterian world.”
Renowned as a hardboiled noir novelist, McKinty included the classic mystery fiction trope of a ‘locked room mystery’ in In the Morning I’ll Be Gone.
“I’ve always been a secret locked-room fanatic,” he says. “I read my first one when I was about ten or 11, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, with David Niven and Peter Ustinov on the cover. That was the first grown-up one that I’d read.
“It’s fantastic, this meta-theory thing where everyone is the killer, which was brilliant, because I was used to reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators. So I asked the librarian if she had any more like Orient Express. The first one I read was Murders in the Rue Morgue, which I totally hated — I just thought it was ridiculous, the idea of an orangutan with a cut-throat razor. But then she gave me some John Dickson Carr novels, and I was hooked.
“Later on, I graduated to noir,” he says, “and didn’t read locked-room mysteries any more, but a few years ago I read one I really liked, called The Tokyo Zodiac Murders [by Soji Shimada]. So I thought to myself, ‘Is it possible to do a locked-room mystery within a noir setting?’ A good one, which doesn’t involve any tricks or misleading the reader. Where the reader has as much information as the detective does, and there’s no cheating, there’s no supernatural bullshit or magicians’ tricks.”
This year will also see McKinty publish, along with co-editor, Stuart Neville, the short-story collection, Belfast Noir. The latest in a global round of city-based collections from Akashic Books, the book will be, McKinty says, another manifestation of a culture coming to terms with itself and its recent past.
“I think the poetry that came out of Belfast, and especially the Queen’s University set, in the 1970s and ’80s — you know, Paul Muldoon and Séamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Ciarán Carson — that was probably the finest body of work since the Gaelic renaissance, up there with the work of Yeats and Synge and Lady Gregory.
“Those guys were kicking down the door and saying there was a high culture in Northern Ireland, and you can attain that even in the face of what must have seemed to them at the time like the abyss. Belfast was a city on fire, and there was no hope. And yet they were producing this incredible poetry.
“That creates a sense of confidence, culturally speaking. And in the ’90s, you had people like Colin Bateman and Eoin McNamee coming along and saying, ‘It’s okay to talk about all this. We can even make fun of it. We can turn it into art’. So, all along, it’s been a process of people finding the courage and the confidence to really deal with the issues.”
That confidence isn’t limited to poetry and fiction.
“Glenn Patterson has a story, in Belfast Noir, about the energy of punk music in Northern Ireland. In ’78 and ’79, Stiff Little Fingers were doing songs like ‘Suspect Device’ and ‘Alternative Ulster’. And The Undertones were creating this amazing pop music that was defiantly apolitical. But it was all about the confidence to talk about whatever you wanted to talk about.
“So it’s all a part of a culture that’s been slowly finding its own voice, to speak and to turn the light within, onto itself.”
McKinty grew up in Carrickfergus, but left Northern Ireland to study politics and philosophy at Oxford. He published his first novel, Everything Rhymes With Orange, in 1998, but it was his acclaimed crime debut, Dead I Well May Be, that put him on the map, in 2003. Since then, he has published nine adult titles and a trilogy of young adult novels, placing him at the head of a generation of new Irish crime authors, such as Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville, Gerard Brennan and Anthony Quinn. It’s a generation that isn’t afraid to write about Northern Ireland’s troubled past, and how history informs the present.
“People in the North are really taciturn and reticent and they don’t really like to talk about the past,” he says. “I mean, my dad worked in the shipyards for 20 years, and I remember asking him, one time, about the Titanic. And he said, ‘Oh, no-one ever talks about that.’ I said, ‘Seriously? You work in Harland & Wolff and no-one ever talks about the Titanic?’ And he said, ‘No’. And I think that’s just symptomatic about the whole culture. It was the same during the Troubles, there were all these things that no one wanted to talk about, lest the dyke broke and all the darkness came pouring out.
“I’m not surprised the Richard Haass talks broke down,” he says, “because one of the things they broke down over was the whole ‘truth commission’ idea. There was just too many people who didn’t want a ‘truth commission’. They don’t want the truth to come out. But it’s our job, as writers, to do exactly that.”