By Miriam R. Kramer
According to legend, the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, converted the Irish to Christianity. His legend spawned the celebratory day on which those of us with Irish heritage (and those who don’t) wear green, down copious glasses of Guinness, Jameson, and green lager, and prance around like deranged leprechauns to traditional Irish music. That being said, he did not drive all the snakes out of Ireland, as his mythology reports. Venomous varieties figuratively populate the two series of historical and current crime novels I am reviewing this month: Kevin McCarthy’s Peeler and Irregulars, and Stuart Neville’s Belfast Novels: The Ghosts of Belfast, Collusion, Stolen Souls, The Final Silence, and Those We Left Behind.
The hero of Kevin McCarthy’s Peelers and Irregulars is Seàn O’Keefe, a Sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary in November of 1920. Recently returned from the Great War, where he landed at V Beach on the Gallipoli Peninsula, he mourns the loss of his brother in the same war. Wracked by survivor’s guilt, he finds himself still traumatized by nightmares from his battles.
O’Keefe, who wants a free Ireland without war, has returned from a very brutal battle to an Ireland in the midst of a war for independence. The IRA fights to establish an Ireland separate from the British Crown, and despise the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) as Peelers, a nickname for the police force reining them in with supplementary British forces such as the Black and Tans, along with other less accountable bedfellows, the cruel, lawless Auxiliaries. In West Cork, a snake hole of IRA activity, O’Keefe and his colleagues close ranks in barricaded barracks that are ironically prison-like to protect themselves from explosions and gunfire.
As he acclimates to his position in this new, unstable Ireland, O’Keefe and his fellow policemen find the naked, mutilated body of a pretty young woman on a high hillside, with the misspelled word “TRATOR” on a board around her neck, along with tarred and feathered hips. She does not appear like other women tarred and feathered by the IRA for treachery. This anomaly drives him to doggedly call upon all his resources to solve a peculiar, disturbing murder case.
In Irregulars, which takes place in October 1922 in Dublin, O’Keefe no longer has a job. He has demobbed from the disbanded RIC after the Treaty between the IRA and the British, which assigned the six northern counties to British control. In the process, he has taken to drinking relentlessly, betting on horses, and leading a depressed, sodden existence. Ireland has effectively become a civil war ground, with former IRA colleagues split between those with power in the new regime who desire to maintain the negotiated Free State and those so-called “Irregulars” who seek a complete Ireland untainted by the Treaty or British rule in the north.
O’Keefe’s Dublin is a gritty, depressed place, where gunfire between Irish factions continues to strew the streets with possible sudden death and O’Keefe struggles to find purpose. When he takes on a job for Ginny Dolan, a madam in a bawdy house, he aims to find her son, Nicky, while accompanied by Dolan’s faithful muscle man and bruiser, a man named Albert. Nicky has left school to follow the lead of Felim O’Hanley, leader of the Dublin Brigade for the Anti-Treaty Irregulars, who dream of an unadulterated Irish republic. After trying to establish payment for armaments at a hotel, Nicky disappears after getting caught in an accidental tangle with common robbers and Free Staters, detectives lying in wait for those trying to contact the arms dealer.
In these novels, Seàn O’Keefe serves as a decent but sometimes violent everyman caught up in historical events beyond his control. Tossed from the trauma of the Great War to first being fired upon and then actually fired by fellow Irishmen whose aggression keeps everyone on edge, he must find some humanity and kindness to keep him sane. He does so when he meets an attractive woman who cares for him but hides her secrets.
Author Kevin McCarthy unsparingly reveals the political corruption and murder flourishing post-treaty with or without the British, and shows that as with most ordinary people, the fondest wish of the Irish would be to get back to a decent, safe life, regardless of treaties or the lack of them. His second novel could use some editing of his hero’s repetitive nightmares and musings, but it is still worthwhile. Through characters such as one of the robbers, Jeremiah Byrne, McCarthy reveals the desperate poverty endured by Dublin tenement dwellers, a poverty that breeds aggression in fractured, drunken families who fight for necessities like food and clothing. His view of Ireland during these post–War Troubles is compassionate but also clear-eyed, and worth reading for a sense of the historical period.
Stuart Neville, renowned author of the Belfast Novels, covers a different historical period, mostly that of current Northern Ireland. He also hearkens back to the Time of Troubles from the 1960s to the late 1990s in the six Irish counties that have constituted Northern Ireland for eighty-plus years. During the former period, violence between Protestants and the Catholic minority was so strong that the population was traumatized by walls dividing neighborhoods, erratic bombs, a lack of civil liberties, random arrests, and general enmity that could flare into violence with a single hostile look or accidental turn into the wrong neighborhood. Yet his emphasis on contemporary affairs is exciting and provocative, particularly in his first book, the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, The Ghosts of Belfast.
Gerry Fegan is a tough bastard, an IRA killer and foot soldier during the eighties with a touch of the Irish second sight. Released seven years ago after serving twelve for murder as a “political prisoner” in the notorious Maze prison, he is haunted by the ghosts of twelve victims whom he killed via others’ orders. Set up with an income from an imaginary created job for his work with the IRA, Fegan could theoretically rest peacefully in this new world after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, in which hostilities between the groups were mostly stopped on the surface with a few holdouts on either side.
Some of his former commanders, then-revolutionaries who ordered murders and bombings, have adapted in this new “peaceful” world to become toothy politicians, snakes in expensive suits who give press conferences, euphemize him and others as “political prisoners,” talk about a new Northern Ireland, and want power in their party and seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. They have thrived despite and perhaps because of their sordid pasts, keeping less educated foot soldiers on call for unsavory duties that have changed with the times. Fegan cannot rest quietly in this new world or adapt. He drinks constantly to try to sleep and shake off his ghosts. The shades of the victims he killed harass him with no mercy, indicating their urge for vengeance against his long-known colleagues who ordered their deaths.
His contemporaries see him as a quiet man without close friends, one who drinks too much and talks to himself or the invisible beings around him, but also someone who still has the potential for performing those necessary odd jobs. Yet they are wary of his newfound unpredictability. When a former commander tries to make him a muscle man in the dirty new underworld, Fegan explodes into action, following his ghosts’ increasingly powerful orders to fulfill their need for closure and his desire to assuage his guilt for his crimes. Simultaneously, he has an instinct for tenderness, finding solace in a relationship and a renewed instinct for preserving the innocence he lost long ago through loving his girlfriend’s little daughter, Ellen.
Neville’s first “Belfast Novel” is a very enjoyable thriller that successfully reveals how a formerly violent, divided society must navigate multiple political concerns to find a meeting ground, particularly when those invested in continuing turmoil do not want to make the transition into normal life. Bright and shiny surfaces please TV cameras but hide entrenched sectarian passions, along with new forms of crime that have crept into the country. Politicians here are as corrupt as they are elsewhere, and use their former power bases to maneuver their way to the top, as politicians in transitioning countries have always done. The Ghosts of Belfast is well worth one’s time as a quick, exciting read and a cynical portrayal of the underbelly of a rebuilding and newly prosperous Northern Ireland. It reveals this professedly new country as a cautionary tale for those societies unable to adapt to changes enforced from above.
In his successive Belfast novels, Neville reveals a shady web of informers that trade information between former revolutionaries, corrupt police, British secret forces, pimps, petty crooks, and bent politicians, all of whom make the goals of honest detectives and other police operatives difficult and dangerous to accomplish in each book. In this way he continues the theme of The Ghosts of Belfast, where such long-established labyrinthine networks operate under a superficially calm and orderly exterior.
In Those We Left Behind, Neville follows a different path when Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan works with a social worker, Paula Cunningham, to untangle the close, bizarre relationship between two young orphaned brothers and perhaps clear an accused murderer. The younger brother, Ciaran Devine, goes to juvenile prison for his foster father’s murder while his cruel, controlling sibling, Thomas, does lesser time as an accessory to murder. Flanagan’s complicated feelings and pity for Ciaran, the simple-minded teenage boy released to a halfway house on probation, increase her desire to implicate the harsh, merciless Thomas, who both soothes Ciaran with hugs and then punishes him by biting him when he does not comply with Thomas’s desires. In this novel Neville examines Northern Ireland’s social welfare system, along with the complex emotions and reactions of respected police officers and social workers trying to solve a crime that has technically already been solved.
Stuart Neville’s first book is his best, although his other works are illuminating regarding the nature of political power under the radar in the new Northern Ireland, along with the social welfare and criminal justice system. They can become overwhelming in their darkness and violence, so they are better off read with breaks in between. Yet they are still instructive and stimulating for a reader who wants to learn more about the recent history of Northern Ireland and the three steps forward, two steps back scenario that represents the political progress of a beautiful but troubled country.