It’s the spring of 1981 and Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy has just been transferred to Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. While the riots are raging just five miles south in Belfast over the hunger strikes by IRA prisoners in the Maze, in Carrickfergus two gay men have been murdered. At first it looks like IRA informer executions, the two men having lost hands in the classic paramilitary style, but soon enough the evidence starts to point toward Duffy having a homophobic serial killer on his, well, hands. (Sorry folks!) But in a time when the Protestants and Catholics both will gladly give you a healthily murderous outlet for your sociopathic tendencies, why has Northern Ireland suddenly been graced with its own answer to the Yorkshire Ripper?
The Cold, Cold Ground is a police procedural from Adrian McKinty and the first in proposed trilogy of novels featuring Sean Duffy, an educated, bohemian Catholic detective for the RUC during the Troubles. It’s bad enough that Duffy’s a cop, but as a Catholic cop it means that he’s also a traitor according to the IRA, making him an especially fucking attractive target for both sides. His Catholicism also makes him an outsider in his largely Protestant Carrickfergus neighborhood and his police station alike. His is a life of always being armed, always checking his car for mercury tilt bombs, and being unable to even drive through certain sections of Belfast without kicking off a riot. He’s a complex character in a horrifying world that doesn’t seem like it could ever really have existed in the First World but, you know, did – and really not all that fucking long ago at that.
Along with the strong character and setting comes a murder mystery plot neither too simple nor unnecessarily complex. There’s plenty of twists and turns but never anything too out of left field, nothing to make your eyes roll or try and skim the pages. When action and bloody violence happens McKinty indeed renders it lovingly, but mainly The Cold, Cold Ground is all about tension and suspense. McKinty’s the rare bird that I can recommend to my mom and you fucking basement junkies both, a writer with a sense of craft and control like that of the thriller writers of a few generations back, but whose long-lingering eye for humanity’s frailties tends to make his work undeniably noir. Here’s hoping Sean Duffy’s return is well-fucking-sharpish indeed.