Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Review: The Cold Cold Ground

The Cold Cold Ground The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sean Duffy is a Catholic police detective in a place and at a time when the IRA sees him as a traitor and his Protestant colleagues see him as an odd duck. It’s 1981, Prince Charles is about to marry Diana, Pope John Paul II is about to get shot, and Bobby Sands and other IRA big-timers are on hunger strike. Northern Ireland is a powder keg, and then things really get crazy: someone starts killing homosexuals, and a young woman may or may not have hung herself. Oh, and Sean falls an attractive doctor.

In a lesser writer’s hands, all that could have been a mess. In McKinty’s, it’s riveting. I realize everything I’ve just described sounds like the obvious elements of a generic hardboiled novel, but McKinty makes it feel as if he’s invented the form.

For starters, the moment is perfect. Maybe it’s because I was a young high school student when these events took place – these were the news stories of my near adulthood – but the era seems rich with characters and conflicts that stayed with us. Northern Ireland was at the heart of a great storm, and McKinty excavates it with real care. We get the hit songs of the moment (from Dolly Parton to late-career Lou Reed), quick but accurate descriptions of the phones and record players, and glimpses of the cars everyone was driving. He brings back an era, one that wasn’t frightening in its everyday details, and makes it a locus for the conflicts that would drive the following decades.

More than that, though, we get everything with rare skill. McKinty dispenses backstory and fresh clue with a terrific rhythm. I never felt he was slipping in something important that I’d have to slap my forehead later for not noticing, nor did I feel he was telegraphing what was important. Instead, his story really feels like the story of a mystery slowly unraveling.

I do think the end falls short of the excellence of the first 90 percent of this, though. [SPOILER] Until the assassination attempt by the IRA team he’s provoked, he’s an ordinary thoughtful cop. When he takes out a half dozen armed men who have the drop on him, well, it feels contrived. And then, when he travels to Italy to kill a double agent, it seems like too much. I accept that he’s a man of deep integrity. I don’t accept that he’d take ‘justice’ into his own hands and kill a man who, despite awful crimes, has the chance to end “the Troubles” years earlier than otherwise.

I suspect that end is connected to my bugaboo about series. I’m not saying that Duffy should have been killed at the end, but I do think it would have been more true to the story to have him fail, to have him have to eat crow despite knowing who ultimately did it. To me, it feels like twisting the story to set up a sequel and probably more books with the same characters.

Barring the last chapter, though, I very much enjoyed this. I’ll keep an eye out for more McKinty – one more in the line of star Celtic noirists – and I’m happy to recommend him to others.

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