Putting character in conflict

Northern Irish writer Adrian McKinty has set his detective fiction in the milieu of the Troubles, says Declan Burke

ADRIAN McKinty grew up in the North during the Troubles. The writer says: “The hunger strikes were so unbelievably intense. I remember the week of Bobby Sands’ death, and funeral, almost minute-by-minute. The city was electric.

“In one way, it was an amazingly fantastic experience, because everybody felt so alive, so immersed in that immediacy — and then, as soon as it was over, I just forgot it. Didn’t process it, didn’t deal with it. And it was years later, when I was telling my wife about it, she said, ‘Y’know, that’s really, really bizarre. None of that is normal’.”

We’re talking about his series of novels set in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s and featuring Seán Duffy, a Catholic policeman in the RUC. The first of these, The Cold Cold Ground, was published last year. Set during the hunger strikes in 1981, it was the first time McKinty the writer had engaged with the traumatic sights and sounds of his formative years.

“The things that happen to you as a child are probably the most important things that are going to happen to you in your life, from a developmental point of view,” he says. “And how else can I possibly talk about my childhood without talking about this craziness that was just terrible?”

Born in Belfast and raised in Carrickfergus, McKinty left in the 1990s to attend university at Oxford, then to work in the US in bars and on building sites. His first novel, Orange Rhymes With Everything, was published in 1998 and was the story of ‘a man breaking out of a New York mental hospital and proceeding on a violent, bloody path back to Ireland’. That could be a metaphor for the arc of McKinty’s career.

For years, he was reluctant to write about Northern Ireland (“I wrote about New York, and Denver, Mexico, Cuba — I mean, I wrote about anywhere else but Northern Ireland”). Eventually, the Duffy character proved irresistible. Perversely, McKinty, who was raised a Protestant in the staunchly loyalist town of Carrickfergus, made Duffy a Catholic in the RUC. “It’s just so much more interesting to have an outsider, in terms of all those different perspectives,” he says. “In terms of class and religion, geography, background — Duffy can look at all these things with a jaundiced eye. Especially if I put him in a Protestant town. There was going to be all these lines of conflict, which is great for a writer. All these fracture lines coming together in this one character. I really had a lot of fun with that in the first book.

“Certainly, in the first few chapters of The Cold Cold Ground, I wanted the reader to be a little bit afraid for Seán,” he says, “that he might get lynched by one of his neighbours — which did happen in real life, of course. I mean, every day Seán has to look under his car for mercury tilt bombs, which, in theory, could be planted by either side in the conflict.”

As a boy, McKinty had a glancing acquaintance with the mercury tilt bomb, or ‘the car bomb’.

“When we were kids, we used to get a lift to school from a guy who was a major in the UDR,” he says. “And that was kind of bizarre, because he took his own son in the front seat, and me and my little brother sat in the back. And the very first time we did it, he went, ‘Okay lads, everyone wait in the house, I want to check under the car for bombs.’ Because a major in the UDR would have been a serious coup, a fantastic ‘get’ for the IRA or the INLA. So, every day he’d check under the car before we got in, but then it started to get cold, and frosty, and he’d just say to us, ‘Ach, it’s too cold to look under the car. Everybody just get in the back.’ So I’m sitting in the back seat, shitting bricks every morning, thinking, ‘Well, this is it. This is where the mercury tilts and trips the electrodes and we’ll all fucking die.’ And, eventually, I said to my mum that I was just going to walk to school, I couldn’t do it anymore, and I explained the situation to my little brother. And he said, ‘Alright, go ahead and walk, then’.” McKinty grins, then laughs. “And he kept on taking the lift.”

The Duffy novels — the second, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, has just been published, with the third due in 2014 — are unlikely to be chosen by Belfast’s city council for a tourist board promotion, given their grotesquely bleak depiction of the city. But McKinty says his portrayal of Belfast is not exaggerated.

“I remember going to see Bladerunner in Belfast in the early ’80s,” he says, “and, after I came, I realised someone had fire-bombed the Ulster Hall. So the Ulster Hall is in flames, and the street’s full of fire engines and police, and there’s an army Gazelle helicopter overhead, and it was raining, of course — and I just thought ‘I’m in Bladerunner’. But what was really bizarre was that no one thought to stop the film, or say that there was a major incident outside. They just subsumed it and went, ‘Oh, well, y’know, we’ll just carry on’.”

The Duffy novels are rooted in reality to the extent that they feature historical figures. Gerry Adams and George Seawright appeared in The Cold Cold Ground, while I Hear the Sirens in the Street is built around the ill-fated attempt by John DeLorean to build a sports-car empire in 1980s Belfast.

“We did a school trip to the DeLorean factory when I was a kid,” says McKinty, “and we were completely bamboozled by the whole experience. We didn’t meet DeLorean, but we got the whole spiel — this was the future, Northern Ireland was becoming a centre for heavy industry and car manufacture.

“Because all the shipyard workers had been laid off at this point, and they all knew how to weld, to rivet, how to work these machines.

“I remember thinking, at the time, ‘Wow, no matter what else is going on, this is great.’ Except the whole thing was just this massive con. I remember being so taken in, and then so disappointed when we realised that the DeLorean was actually a shit car, it was expensive, it was unreliable, and the guys in Dunmurry couldn’t actually build it — I mean, it was a car, which is a very different thing to building a ship. And then, on top of it all being a massive con, DeLorean tried to save the company by becoming a major cocaine dealer.” McKinty shakes his head, still not believing it. “I mean, that’s fantastic. That story is crying out for Steven Soderbergh to make it as a movie.”

Eight years ago, McKinty pitched an idea to a BBC Northern Ireland producer (“an old-fashioned cop show — this is before Life on Mars — set in the 1970s, like The Sweeney, but set in Belfast during the Troubles”) but received ‘a good talking-to’ about how no one in the province wanted to look back to the Troubles.

“He was an older guy, a wise man,” says McKinty, “and I only had two books under my belt, so I really took that to heart.”

These days, as the author of ten adult crime novels and a trilogy for young adults, he follow his instincts. Initially discouraged by his agent and publisher against writing the Duffy novels, on the basis that no one in the UK or the US would be interested in reading them, McKinty ploughed ahead.

“If you take yourself seriously as a writer,” he says with a resigned shrug, “that’s where you should be — in these interstitial spaces, probing these dark places that no one ever wants you to go. I mean, that’s your job.”

*Adrian McKinty’s I Hear the Sirens in the Street is published by Serpent’s Tail.


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