Born in Derry, but living in London for most of his adult life, Paul Charles first came to our attention with the Camden Town-set series of novels featuring Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy, publishing his debut, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, in 1997.
There have been ten Christy Kennedy books in total, and Charles has also written a pair of crime novels set in rural Donegal, but he goes back to his roots for The Lonesome Heart is Angry, which is set in the early 1960s in the fictional Co Derry town of Castlemartin.
The opening brings to mind both John B Keane and Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride. Michael Gilmour, Castlemartin’s resident matchmaker, is shocked when he is approached by the twins Pat and Joe Kane, local farmers in need of a wife.
Unfortunately, they intend sharing a single wife. Outraged by the impropriety, not to mention the potential damage to his own reputation, Gilmour sends them on their way, only to be deeply wounded when his beloved sister-in-law, Maggie, agrees to accept the twins’ unusual terms and conditions and marries Pat Kane.
It’s not long before Michael Gilmour’s instincts about the ‘unnatural’ arrangement are proved correct. Joe disappears after a vicious and very public fight between the brothers, and the rumours of the local gossips force District Detective Inspector Doyle — a devotee of the methods of Sherlock Holmes — to investigate the intimate lives of the Kane clan … The Lonesome Heart is Angry is a delightfully genteel mystery novel, one that is very firmly rooted in the ‘cosy’ end of the spectrum. Apart from a couple of instances of fisticuffs, there is little here that remotely approaches the blood, gore and violence that characterises much of contemporary crime fiction. The diminutive Detective Inspector Doyle — aka ‘Wee Doyle’ — may well be investigating the disappearance and possible murder of Joe Kane, but that narrative strand is only one aspect of Paul Charles’ own exploration of a gentler, kinder time and place. His affection for his cast of quirky characters is palpable, as is his description of the town of Castlemartin itself, a fictional version of Charles’ own hometown of Magherafelt.
The folksy, conversational tone, however, is bittersweet. The matchmaker, the bumbling policeman and the idyllic rural setting give the novel an old-fashioned air, but Castlemartin is a town in the early stages of a cultural revolution. The soundtrack in the local cafés and fairgrounds is jarring: The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles. Charles, who has spent most of his life working as a music promoter — his clients include Tom Waits, Christy Moore, Elvis Costello and The Waterboys — even has Wee Doyle’s investigation turn on a crucial clue provided by a Beatles single.
Change is coming to Castlemartin and washing away the old values, and even paragons of virtue such as Michael Gilmour and Detective Inspector Doyle aren’t able to stem the tide.
Curiously, perhaps, and in common with John McAllister’s similarly set The Station Sergeant (2012), religion and sectarian conflict play no part in The Lonesome Heart is Angry. The citizens of Castlemartin are entirely pragmatic when it comes to rules, laws and commandments, Heaven-sent or otherwise, adapting instead to circumstance as they see fit and bending to authority, as Wee Doyle discovers when he starts asking his questions, only when it suits their own agenda.
It all sounds deliciously idyllic, of course, but the fate of Joe, Pat and Maggie Kane suggests that no society or community can thrive indefinitely if it is composed of moral anarchists, regardless of how friendly and sociable they might appear to be.