Written by Adrian McKinty — Originally, Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series was meant to be a trilogy, so the appearance of Gun Street Girl is great news for fans. It’s the fourth book set in 1980s Belfast and featuring the Catholic detective who’s reached the rank of Detective Inspector in the mainly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Duffy barely survived his last outing, In the Morning I’ll be Gone. Suspended from CID, he was recruited by MI5 to take down a Libyan-trained IRA bombing cell on the mainland. That mission tied in to a locked-room mystery, and in Gun Street Girl he’s got another peculiar case on his hands. It begins with a double murder. Betting shop magnate Ray Kelly and his wife have been shot execution style in their home and their son Michael is missing.
Duffy’s keen to mentor his subordinates, so he gives the case to DS McCrabban – a fine Presbyterian fixture in this series – and green shoot recruit Constable Lawson. Duffy decides to oversee things while considering a job offer from his MI5 contact, Kate. If he accepts, he’ll leave his dead-end role at Carrickfergus nick to become a spook. Despite his taste for vodka, whiskey, Guinness, hash and cocaine… the folks at MI5 think he has what it takes.
Things are looking up in Duffy’s love life too. He goes to a dance at the local RC church – the equivalent of mid-80s Ulster speed dating – attended by the more gormless men in the community and some of its many widows. Pretty young journalist Sara Prentice latches onto our rugged RUC detective and to him it seems a good thing. For her, access to a murder investigation is a rung on the ladder to becoming a top news reporter on Belfast’s evening paper.
When Michael Kelly’s body is discovered at the bottom of a beautiful cliff, it looks like McCrabban’s case might be closed as murder-suicide. But Kelly was no hitman and Duffy and co have their doubts. Doubts that are confirmed when Kelly’s girlfriend also turns up dead in a situation that McCrabban determines is a fake suicide. The dead girl’s housemate then gets arrested for an unrelated GBH, but offers the police a deal – she’ll tell what she knows about the murders in return for reduced charges and police protection. Everything’s pointing towards a Loyalist paramilitary hit, and the housemate is sent to a safehouse in Scotland.
The case takes Duffy and Lawson over to Oxford as well, as they investigate Michael Kelly’s background. Turns out he’d been involved in a death while at the university, and they find he had plenty of contacts in the arms trade via his leadership of Oxford’s prestigious gun club. Duffy and McCrabban think their case might link back to six missile systems stolen from the Shorts factory in Belfast.
As in the previous books, McKinty weaves into the story a granular and very believable depiction of life in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Duffy’s neighbours include a Protestant paramilitary with whom he has an uneasy truce, several desperate Ulster housewives, and a man who, surreal as it seems, keeps a lioness as a pet. Our hero checks for mercury tilt devices every time he gets into his BMW and the entire station regularly goes on riot duty. Just like the previous books, real historical events and characters impinge satisfyingly on the plot. It being 1985, riot duty here is due to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, cooked up by Mrs Thatcher and Mr FitzGerald without consulting Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. What did they think would happen? But it’s another international scheme of 1985 that underpins this mystery and drives the book’s deadly finale.
Gun Street Girl seems snappier and pulpier than the first three novels in the series. It’s easier than ever to picture Sean Duffy adapted for the small screen – a bit like Life on Mars, but distilled in Ulster. The book is a wonderful page turner, made all the more readable for its tempo, though the solving of the mystery does flatten out a bit in the third quarter. Duffy is certainly maturing as a character – a touch less morose and a little more self-critical than in previous books – and that’s nice to see. The ending is open enough for this to become a trilogy of five, and let’s hope that happens.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars