Like over fifty million American adults, I have Irish ancestors, although I have to go back to my great-great-grandfather and -grandmother to find anyone actually born on Irish soil. I was also an adult during most of The Troubles, the years from 1968 until 1998 when Northern Ireland was a battleground between the (essentially Protestant) loyalists, who wanted the country to stay in the UK, and the (essentially Catholic) unionists, who wanted it to join the Republic of Ireland. But until I started reading about this little piece of modern history, I was ignorant about it.
I knew, for example, that England sent troops to “calm” the situation, but I had no idea that British soldiers were actively deployed in Northern Ireland for thirty-eight years, from 1969 until 2007. Living safely in first the US and then Switzerland, I was only peripherally aware of this civil war, which killed at least 3,500 people, over half of them civilians; injured many more; and terrified everyone, since it was fought in the streets where people lived and worked, and both sides expected absolute loyalty from their coreligionists.
One of the writers I have to thank for giving me a feeling for the chaotic and terrifying situation in Belfast and other Northern Irish towns is Adrian McKinty, who wrote the six-book Sean Duffy series. This is an excellent set of police procedurals set in Belfast and the nearby town of Carrickfergus. The books are set between 1981 and 1988 during the height of the violence; smack in the middle of the mess is their protagonist, Sean Duffy, who works as a policeman for the Carrickfergus Royal Ulster Constabulary. The RUC is overwhelmingly Protestant; Duffy is a Catholic.
Adrian McKinty writes beautifully, and all six novels are nail-bitingly exciting, but what makes them outstanding is Sean Duffy himself. Totally cynical about the ideologies behind The Troubles, Duffy is still determined to solve crimes, if he can tease out the actual murders from the wholesale killing around him. During the course of the series, he tackles the case of a headless American tourist in a suitcase, a woman killed in a locked pub, a young man who apparently murdered both his parents and then killed himself, and a petty criminal shot dead with a crossbow bolt. None of these deaths are what they seem, and all of them turn out to have complex ramifications that bring Duffy into conflict with at least one of the armed groups embroiled in the Troubles.
Sean Duffy is a heavy drinker, smokes nonstop, uses drugs when he can get his hands on them, barely sleeps, and exasperates his girlfriends into leaving him. But no matter how distracted or drunk he is, he never, ever gets into his car without checking underneath it for a hidden bomb. He’s also spectacularly insubordinate, particularly when his bosses try to stop him from investigating cases he thinks are important. But even his superiors have to recognize that he’s a perceptive and dedicated investigator. In addition, McKinty has done us readers the favor of making Duffy very funny! The black humor of the books balances the violence brilliantly.
As a reader, you don’t just care about Duffy because he’s brave and cynical and a skilled policeman. You’re on his side because he comes across as a deeply moral person who refuses to take the easy way out by closing his eyes to the complexity of the choices he’s faced with. Trying to be a good cop (or “peeler,” as the locals say) and a good man in the middle of a civil war is almost impossible, but Duffy’s internal debates about what to do as he confronts one crisis after another are as fascinating as the steps he takes to identify killers and find the evidence to get them arrested.
The Sean Duffy series won Adrian McKinty a great many awards from the crime fiction community in the US, the UK, and Australia, but it didn’t make him the money he needed to support his family. Now he has written two standalone thrillers, The Chain (2019) and The Island (2022) and has become financially successful. I’m very happy for him.
Take my advice, however. Start with the first Sean Duffy book. It’s called The Cold, Cold Ground. And if you want to hear it superbly read in a fascinating variety of Irish and British accents, get the audiobook.