Written by Adrian McKinty — The premise behind this story is enough to catch your interest straight away. It’s set in Northern Ireland in 1981, right in the middle of the IRA hunger strikes. The police have plenty to deal with as nationalists riot in the streets, fought back by the army and the police. Bombings and shootings punctuate the backdrop, and dead bodies turning up are no big deal. So when a man is found with a bullet in his skull and one of his hands cut off, on the surface it looks like he’s the victim of a paramilitary hit.
However DS Sean Duffy of the Carrickfergus constabulary investigates the scene and has his doubts. Some elements usually associated with a sectarian killing are missing, and the pathologist finds semen and a curious piece of sheet music in the victim’s rectum. What’s more, the hand they find isn’t his. Before long another known homosexual is found dead in similar circumstances. The killer sends Duffy a postcard setting off a game of cat and mouse. Psychopaths in Northern Ireland are usually absorbed by paramilitary organisations, but it seems that Ulster has its first classic serial killer.
When the body of the ex-wife of a hunger striker is found in some nearby woods, Duffy has a real challenge on his hands. Was it suicide? Is it linked to the other two killings? Were the IRA, UDA, UVF or some other set of terrorist initials involved?
His hunt for the killer takes him into the loyalist tenaments, into the notorious Maze prison and right to the top of the Sinn Fein/IRA ladder. Duffy himself is an anomoly in the force – the only Catholic in the barracks. He’s young and driven, and with some success in previous investigations is being groomed for RUC greatness. He’s also petulent and opportunistic, but witty and poetic as he tells his story.
The Cold Cold Ground is expertly crafted with a plotline that grows increasingly intense and despearate. You’ll enjoy all the textures with which the author portrays Northern Ireland – the touches of gaelic, Ulster fry-ups, whiskey and Guinness, and the Marxist barber, for example. If you like music, Duffy’s constant references to 70s and 80s bands, tracks and even record labels might chime with you. The female characters are a bit thin – it seems they’re there to be secretaries and sex objects. Or to be victims. And the final 40 pages unspool rather anti-climactically with a lot of dialogue before things are wrapped up.
However, these things won’t be enough to deter the noir lover. Eventually Duffy runs out of leads as doors on both sides of the sectarian divide slam in his face. When he’s taken off the he really gets the yips, drinking hard and following up his own mad theories which, almost randomly, bring him closer to the killer. The way McKinty writes you can hear every knuckle crack, every gunshot and explosion, and feel the breath of the terrorist gunmen as they lean in with their threats. The book has an incredible final action sequence – it’s like watching a film. Maybe it will be a film one day? Who knows, but there are definitely two more Sean Duffy books on the way and I can’t wait.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars