Novels that fit into the sub-genre of the historical mystery have the potential to make exploring the past more accessible, exciting, and intimate than traditional historical writing. By experiencing the past through a character the reader sympathizes with, those times and events can be made to feel more “real.” Yet frequently these works fail to get the right balance between history and fiction. In many cases there is such a pedantic focus on the history at the expense of the actual plot that it feels like a social history lecture from a very dull professor instead of a riveting whodunnit. At the other extreme, some authors take such liberties with facts and ideas from the past that those familiar with the history of the era are left shaking their heads in disbelief. A common example of this is authors giving their historical characters anachronistic beliefs and attitudes in order to make them more sympathetic to a modern audience—usually this involves giving them more enlightened ideas about race and gender than were likely for the era, but it can also include giving them ahead-of-their time ideas about science. A great historical mystery novel should weave the historical content and the mystery together seamlessly, giving the reader a “true” sense of time and place that helps the reader to better understand the choices, actions, thoughts and limitations of the characters. The history should advance the plot, rather than drown it out. At the same time, in the best examples of this sub-genre, the mystery and action raise deeper questions about historical issues and how the reader thinks about the past. Adrian McKinty’s The Cold Cold Ground, meets these challenges with considerable success, using the very conventional form of the police procedural to provide real insight into one of the most tense periods during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The setting is the spring of 1981 in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. Bobby Sands has just died from his hunger strike in Maze Prison, and over the next three to four months nine other hunger strikers will suffer the same fate, creating an explosive atmosphere of riots, rage, terror and disorder in the streets of Northern Ireland. Against this explosive backdrop, a young Catholic RUC detective named Sean Duffy is called to investigate the murder of a man who has been shot and had his hand cut off, suggesting that this might have been the execution of an informer by the IRA. However, further investigation, information from the post-mortem, and the discovery of a second victim killed in similar circumstances raise the possibility of a serial killer targeting homosexuals, making it a very sensitive and difficult case to investigate because homosexuality was illegal in Northern Ireland in 1981. Duffy spends the rest of the novel trying to determine if the victims’ deaths were at the hands of a serial killer or were the result of the sectarian conflict raging in Northern Ireland. Duffy is also called upon to investigate the disappearance of the ex-wife of another Maze prisoner who has begun participating in the hunger strike. It is not really a spoiler to point out that any reader of police procedurals knows when the hero detective is handed two seemingly unrelated cases, it turns out they are connected.
Sean Duffy is an outsider everywhere he goes. Not only is he a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant police force (which by itself could get him killed by the IRA), but he also lives on a Protestant estate. He is confident in his abilities, is attractive to women, and has excellent taste in music. He likes his drink too much, has problems with authority of every kind, dresses badly, and displays a gallows humor that masks a powerful integrity and determination to seek justice, even when it puts him at odds with his superiors and powerful forces. Yes, for the rest of this review, he shall be called “Irish Rebus.” In fairness to McKinty, Irish Rebus does show some vulnerabilities, and a conflicted and confused sense of his own identity that would be unlikely to appear in Ian Rankin’s Rebus series.
McKinty is masterful in giving a sense of the historical mood through any number of small scenes to communicate the claustrophobia, disorder, chaos, hatred and insanity of Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. Irish Rebus begins every morning by searching under his car for bombs and keeps a large machine gun by his front door. He lives in constant fear that his Protestant neighbors will discover his identity, and for similar reasons his Catholic girlfriend is very nervous about visiting his house. His investigation is continually shaped and impeded by the political, social and cultural realities of the Troubles that are completely taken-for-granted. When interviewing suspects there is always the fear in the back of his mind that a poorly chosen word could put himself or others in danger. This is a world in which there are “no-go” areas where police fear to travel, and when they do must prepare for it as if they are an invading army carrying out a military operation. McKinty’s characters accept these realities with a sort of matter-of-fact weariness that is some ways is the most shocking part of his portrayal of the era.
In the author’s depiction of the troubles all sides come out looking very bad, seeming to be most characterized by a kind of cynicism and self-interest that undercuts all of their more inspired rhetoric for the press and the public. He describes “orchestrated riots,” and leaders of the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries alike who seem more concerned about the success of their various criminal enterprises than their larger cause—he even suggests that at the highest levels of both organizations there is cooperation to maintain various protection rackets. Gerry Adams makes a cameo appearance in the novel, and he comes off poorly, as do a number of fictional characters amongst the Protestant paramilitaries. McKinty also raises questions about the moral compromises, sleazy partnerships, and illegal activity the British Government was willing to sanction in the name of fighting terrorism. Indeed, those familiar with the history of the IRA and British intelligence will recognize a character’s name that has been barely changed from his real-life counterpart, suggesting that the plot was very loosely inspired by events that actually occurred.
The shortcomings of the novel have more to do with the clichés of the genre than the actual story. For example, the novel touches on a large and growing personal pet peeve of mine in mystery novels: the romance between the detective and police pathologist. The world of mystery novels would lead readers to believe that this happens all the time, that there is a surplus of young, attractive, lonely, and single female pathologists who are attracted to men under somewhat unusual circumstances. I don’t buy it. After being told by the pathologist about the various orifices on the victim where she found the killer’s DNA, would even the randiest detective think “She’s kinda cute, now seems like a good time to flirt with her.”? Would an attractive, young, highly-educated pathologist be impressed with a detective that hit on her after a post-mortem? In McKinty’s defense pathologist Laura Cathcart is a strong and intelligent character who makes important contributions to the investigation while serving as the love interest for Irish Rebus, but in general the novel is not filled with female characters. The only other female character who gets a significant speaking role is a young constable, and SPOILER ALERT: Irish Rebus scores with her too. This quibble aside, The Cold Cold Ground is an excellent historical detective novel with an intricate plot that will transport readers to one of the worst periods of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and make many readers curious to read more about its history.
Christopher Frank is a historian at the University of Manitoba who spends his time reading mystery novels, running, hanging out with his wife and three kids, and wondering whether he will live long enough to see the Portland Trail Blazers win another NBA title.