Monday, March 7, 2016

Those Legendary Belfast Vowels

Adrian McKinty, Rain Dogs: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel

Everyone assumes English journalist Lily Bigelow leapt off Carrickfergus Castle to her self-inflicted death. But autopsy reports confirm that, somehow, someone murdered her inside the locked and shuttered monument. Detective Inspector Sean Duffy can’t believe it: an actual locked room mystery. Those never happen, but he just received his second. Is someone gaslighting him? Or are grim forces conspiring to bury Northern Ireland’s darkest secrets?

Irish expat Adrian McKinty’s fifth Sean Duffy novel references prior novels, but is essentially freestanding. RUC Detective Sean Duffy solves crimes in Carrickfergus, outside Belfast, during the heart of the Troubles, that period when Northern Irish sectarian violence reached its historic peak. His police work is solid, but he picks unproductive fights, which keeps him from rising through the ranks. His approach, and career arc, resemble a Northern Irish Inspector Morse.

Lily Bigelow followed a Finnish trade delegation to Carrickfergus, hoping for juicy leads about international development in Britain’s most underdeveloped corners. But her questions seldom addressed the Finns. She seemed more interested in scaring up a controversy surrounding public figures in London, a controversy spanning leaders in media and government. But her notebook is missing. To chase down her killer, Duffy must re-investigate her story.

This investigation propels Duffy from Belfast to London to Helsinki, and finally unto Finland’s Arctic frontiers. He gradually unpacks a massive multinational conspiracy to re-victimize those already traumatized by the Troubles’ persistent violence, victims wholly unable to defend themselves. I daren’t spoil McKinty’s big reveal. Suffice to say, Duffy uncovers a (very real and historical) cabal, not unlike a British Bill Cosby, only longer, wider, and far more destructive.

Adrian McKinty
McKinty’s prose style takes some some getting used to, especially for non-Celtophiles. He utilizes the frequently terse, telegraphic voice common among the Irish working class, a voice so distinctive that the familiar can almost hear those legendary Belfast vowels. Very lengthy passages and fraught discussions vanish quietly into three-word sentences. Newcomers may struggle somewhat with first-person narrator Duffy’s brusque style:
“Office. Window. Lough. Coal boats. Rain.
McCrabban and Lawson sitting there on the sofa, Gregorio Allegri’s comforting (for a Catholic) Miserere on the record player.
‘I don’t like it,’ I said.
‘What don’t you like?’
I pointed at Lawson. ‘He has put a seed of doubt in my head. A seed which has grown into a virulent little shrub of doubt.’”
Readers unaccustomed to Gaelic dialects may find this off-putting. McKinty’s sentences, where they don’t run one or two words, are often purely subject-verb, sometimes giving his storytelling a feeling like he’s outlining something he hopes to complete later. Yet readers willing to persevere will adapt, finding his stylings absolutely correct for a character who thinks in an altogether unornamented style. Duffy speaks briefly because he thinks clearly.

Sadly, for his smart language and concise historical storytelling, McKinty paints himself into a corner. Having chosen a historical focus for his narrative, an event that wouldn’t actually get addressed for nearly a quarter century after this novel’s setting, McKinty can’t actually change history. Though Duffy solves the mystery to his own satisfaction, he cannot resolve things legally, nor bring closure to victims. Thus McKinty’s story less resolves then peters out.

Which is a shame, because before that irresolute ending, McKinty has crafted a first-rate character mystery. Besides the procedural circumstances, Duffy is a complicated character himself. A hipster before anyone invented that term, Duffy struggles to remain intellectually and aesthetically pure in a world of U2 and cheap television. He idolizes Muhammad Ali, accepting grunt duty just to meet The Champ. He numbs his powerful internal conflicts by smoking blunts in his off hours.

Throughout, Duffy struggles with issues of character. His much-younger girlfriend has moved out, but they give mixed signals about actually being over one another. His former colleague has entered the PI business, tempting him with a lucrative paycheck, if he’ll simply leave his scruples at the door. Paranoia runs so pervasive, he can’t get into a car without checking for bombs anymore. Circumstances repeatedly remind Duffy he could enjoy a cushy life, if he simply stopped caring.

Maybe McKinty set standards so high, so early, that any resolution would seem disappointing. Which goes double for a mystery where real life chose the resolution for him. McKinty crafts a novel that’s really, really good, right up to the “sad trombone” conclusion. A story this good deserves a better final page. Well, McKinty implies Duffy’s story isn’t over. Perhaps he’ll get the resolution he deserves in the next book.

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