Book review: Border Angels

by Anthony Quinn

Book review: Border Angels

IT’S a truism as much as a cliché — you can’t bury the past. You can bury memories, you can bury bodies, but the pesky past, with all its complications, refuses to disappear, no matter what you do or say.

Country Tyrone-born writer and journalist, Anthony Quinn, knows this, as is obvious in his two crime novels, Disappeared (published in 2012) and his latest, Border Angels, both of which feature a decent man, Inspector Celcius Daly, who is more at ‘home’ with the truths of murder and kidnap and tragedy than living a lie with his wife.

Disappeared was published to positive reviews that highlighted Quinn’s well-wrought prose as much as his intuitive knowledge of the landscape around Armagh — if the police investigations in the book could be described as routine, then the writing was not.

And so it is with Quinn’s follow-up — the dark recesses on which Border Angels shines a glaring light include the bursting of the property bubble, racism, and brothel-keeping/sex-trafficking in rural Ireland.

From Quinn’s quiet-spoken (if not reticent) manner, I’d be hard-pressed to guess that he’s the writer of books that lay bare and bald the indifference that hangs like a dense fog over Northern Irish communities in these post-peace process days.

It helps that when Quinn isn’t writing a page of fiction per day (“within eight months, you have a book,” he says) that he’s sitting at his desk in the Cookstown offices of the Tyrone Times.

His career is interesting; after completing an English degree at Queen’s University Belfast, he was an organic market gardener, social worker, lecturer, yoga teacher, and part-time journalist.

Incredibly shy as a child, Quinn has always written, and had always wanted to be a writer.

Stories of his were shortlisted for the Hennessy/New Irish Writing Award, and then he was the runner-up in a food-writing competition (his first ever interview as a journalist was with Gordon Ramsey).

Ten years ago, Quinn moved from Scotland back home to rural Armagh. He had previously undertaken a masters in social work.

“I did that in order to develop myself as a person, because, growing up, I’d always been introverted. I just wanted to connect with people, to empathise, I suppose, to find out more about them. After ten years as a social worker, however, I knew I’d just have to write a book, so the compulsion was always there. That’s when I switched to journalism.”

Securing a job in his local newspaper, what he had thought would be a good grounding in writing skills turned into something else.

“It was just after the peace process, and what I discovered was that people wanted to tell me about how, in a way, they felt they had been left out of the Good Friday Agreement; that while the agreement had resulted in a harmonous new country, it was evident there were flaws and fractures,” he says.

Quinn was the receiver of untold stories. He also received a distinct, unsettling sense (or, as he describes it, “almost a superstitious fear”) from the story-tellers that talking about the past might actually bring it back.

“People wanted to move on,” he says. “The economy was booming, people were going on foreign holidays and buying holiday homes; the media didn’t really want to be bothered with listening to these stories. But I did an interview with a family; their 12-year-old son had been killed by a bomb in the 1970s.

“So the story was published, and, after that, the phone kept on ringing; people on both sides of the community wanted to tell their stories.

“Not talking about things was a good coping mechanism during the Troubles, but after the ceasefire it seemed that people felt

>>>> they shouldn’t tell their stories. To me, that felt worse than being forced with silence.”

Gradually, the notion of writing crime fiction about criminal fact made itself so obvious that — much like the past — it just wouldn’t go away.

While for the past ten or so years Northern Ireland-based crime writing, aka ‘Nordie Noir’, is in very good hands (cf Colin Bateman, Stuart Neville, Adrian McGinty, Brian McGilloway), Quinn felt he could add to it. What he had read, he says, didn’t feel “nuanced enough … I didn’t feel it did justice to the kind of people I grew up with, or, indeed, the landscape.”

The latter is where Quinn gets it perfect. While the plotting of Border Angels is highly proficient, there are stray ends that don’t dovetail as neatly as they should, and dialogue that is too often easy to disbelieve. In writing about the terrain, however, Quinn nails it on the head.

Fellow ‘border county’ author, Pat McCabe, writes of such territory in dark, surreal ways, but Quinn’s descriptions are rooted in a harsher, historical reality. It’s as if every bush has a ghost wilfully brushing against its thorns, every boreen an unspoken dread confidently walking along it. Almost reluctantly, Quinn nods in agreement.

“I’m rooted in the place where I grew up,” he says, “and so I have a sense of community, a bond with the people, an attachment to the land. In some form, it’s a window to the soul of the people, but it’s a shamed landscape, in a way.”

Throughout Border Angels (and Disappeared), Quinn makes pointed references to a post-peace process country, with people in power who were previously involved in what some euphemistically term ‘armed struggles’.

Also throughout is a firm sense of Quinn having fun (in a serious way) with the blurring of politically divisive lines. Was that deliberate?

“Not necessarily — I just wanted to make realistic characters that were authentic. In some fiction, the characters are too defined, rather than something more captivating and believable. Even the bad side can be fascinating, because what repels us can also attract us, so it’s a kind of dark gravity that pulls you in, rather than a pure kind of entertainment.”

An interesting guy is Mr Quinn, and an interesting crime writer, who has written elsewhere about his own past as a young lad growing up in a conflicted landscape: “denial, silence, putting on a brave face — these were the coping strategies during the Troubles.” Has that changed, does he think. Have taboos been broken? Inhibitions stretched?

He shakes his head, fashions a wry smile. “As a budding author, the old adage of writing what you know about couldn’t have been applied years ago, as it was just too dangerous. But thanks to writers such as Colin Bateman and Adrian McGinty, those inhibitions have been kicked away, and so it’s easer to write about the old days.

“There is, though, still an aversion to go back and talk about things. I don’t think there’s a political will for it, either, because the wounds are still a bit too raw. There is still murkiness there — but you can’t illuminate what’s underneath, you can only show how murky it is.”

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