Book review: Disappeared

THE normal standards of right and wrong did not apply to his parishioners,” observes Fr Jack Fee early on in Anthony J Quinn’s Disappeared, “only what was necessary or unnecessary for survival.”

Book review: Disappeared

Anthony J Quinn

Head of Zeus €10.99

Set on the mist-shrouded southern shores of Lough Neagh in the post-Troubles era, the events of Disappeared are deeply rooted in Northern Ireland’s recent past, when Fr Fee envisaged “his parish as not so much a sanctuary for a God-fearing flock, but as a no-man’s land between two armies, an arena for IRA ambushes and British Army patrols.”

The lines of conflict may have been sharply defined in Fr Fee’s mind, but it’s in the shadowy cracks between warring forces that Quinn’s novel thrives on.

Inspector Celsius Daly of the newly-created Police Service of Northern Ireland is called to a remote island on Lough Neagh, where he discovers the corpse of Joseph Devine, an old man who has been murdered in a grotesque fashion.

It emerges Devine, a respectable clerk during a long but unremarkable career spent working for a local legal firm that specialised in representing Republicans, was a valuable informer for the RUC’s Special Branch. Who or what was Devine murdered to protect?

First published in the US, and shortlisted there for a Strand Literary Award, Quinn’s debut propels the Tyrone author into the first rank of Irish crime writing.

An eye for vividly contrasting imagery means that Disappeared is superbly evocative of its bleak setting, such as when Daly leaves behind the rural shore of Lough Neagh to drive into Portadown.

“The shapes of trees shining in the frost were like the nerves and arteries of a dissected corpse,” writes Quinn; little more than a paragraph later Daly is contemplating Dalriada Terrace: “The street felt like a dingy holiday resort inhabited by the inmates of a concentration camp.”

Quinn’s seriousness of intent is quickly apparent. This is not a conventional crime novel in the sense that justice delivered ensures a happy-ever-after ending. Celsius Daly is under no illusion the post-Troubles ceasefires have suddenly created a utopia in Northern Ireland.

“We never had an armed struggle,” says Tessa Jordan, the still grieving widow of Oliver Jordan, a young man murdered for being an informer almost two decades previously.

“The whole thing,” she claims, “was a horrible game run by secret agents and psychopaths.” Daly, recently returned to Northern Ireland from Scotland, is no innocent abroad, but he is relatively untainted by the sense of ironic fatalism his colleagues tend to don as armour against futility.

“That was the horror of the ceasefire,” observes one character, “that your perceptions could be so blurred you no longer recognised the terrorist.”

For all his faults — and Celsius Daly is fully aware of the many flaws that make him a plausibly fascinating character — the detective has yet to fully extinguish ‘the distinction he made between good and evil’, or his belief in the necessity of justice, however belatedly it might arrive.

“Perhaps it’s time you learned to live with a little uncertainty,” one of Daly’s colleagues advises, but these words of wisdom, which could serve as a mantra for Northern Ireland’s immediate future, are eventually rejected for a more positive aspiration for his country.

Downbeat, bracingly pragmatic, beautifully written and steeped in the genre’s lore, this is a post-Troubles debut crime novel to rival Stuart Neville’s The Twelve or Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands.

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