A bleak novel, this week – Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands, set on the borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the “soft” border that may be about to become a “hard”, or controlled, border again as Brexit looms. The past, including the pre-cooperation days of the controlled borders, casts a long shadow over this area, and Inspector Benedict Devlin of the Garda travels backwards and forwards over the border as he attempts to track the killer of a young girl, found almost naked in woodland, just before Christmas. She had been seen with a young traveller boy, and suspicion falls on him and his family. At the same time, Devlin is asked to investigate a break-in at an old people’s home, witnessed by the father-in-law of his ex-girlfriend.
The plot is as intricately enmeshed as the branches on a winter tree, and confidently handled, but this is a harsh world full of violence, with little in the way of likeable characters or any leaven of humour. McGilloway was shortlisted for a Debut Dagger for this, and deservedly so. And yet – pulls out soapbox and stands on it – I wouldn’t trust a detective that couldn’t be trusted with a dog, and Devlin is simply Too Irresponsible for Dog Ownership (TIDO). He leaves a basset hound (short-coated dog) in a shed each night, in the snow, at Christmas, and when the dog escapes and is accused of sheep-worrying, does he defend the dog, or take him into the house? Does he heck. I began by assuming this was the author’s way of telling us that Devlin was a villain (Hollywood code these days for a bad guy involves violence towards dogs) but no, it turns he was simply TIDO. Violence, swearing, goes with the genre – total irresponsibility doesn’t, and annoys me no end. Other dog people may feel the same.
After the reading of recent weeks, I found myself in need of something less dark, so picked up Graham Norton’s Holding. I’ve always had a soft spot for Norton, not so much for his TV chat show, but for some of his earlier work, such as his guide to having a Eurovision hit (long before he took over commenting on the real thing) and the supremely irritating Father Noel in Father Ted.
Holding is set in a remote corner of Ireland (at least I’m guessing so, if Cork is seen as the epitome of big-city excitement), in the village of Duneen, where the local policeman tackles his first murder scene at the age of 53. The victim may or may not have been the boy that two women still living in the village had fought over, many years previously, but he had disappeared without a trace. PJ, the overweight cop, finds himself drawn to both women, and his previously unexciting existence suddenly speeds up.
Norton is good on blighted lives, squandered promise, lost loves and quiet desperation. (His role as the Daily Telegraph’s agony uncle may have helped with that.) He largely resists the temptation to go for cheap laughs, and instead paints a somewhat bleak portrait of the role of women in a conservative rural society – not that the men have vastly more in the way of options. As a police procedural, maybe this isn’t strong on realism, but as a portrayal of loneliness and isolation in an out-of-the-way place this is a compelling read.
This week it’s Andrea Carter’s Treacherous Strand, the second in her Ben (Benedicta) O’Keeffe series, set on the Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland. (This is the northernmost point of Ireland that terminates at Malin Head, well known to lovers of the shipping forecast.) Ben is a lawyer, and when her yoga teacher Marguerite appears one evening wanting to make a will urgently, she is surprised, but is shocked to find the next day that Marguerite is dead, found on the beach in an apparent suicide bid.
Ben is convinced there is more to it, and that the local guards have written off the case too easily. She follows up with visits to the victim’s neighbour, the sculptor Simon Howard who is determined to charm her. In the meantime, she still has to deal with all the variety of cases that fall to a small-town lawyer, such as drink-driving charges and conveyancing deals, and in the course of these she discovers how tangled the inter-relationships of small-town life can be.
Carter writes with fluency and a distinctive voice – I hope there’s an audio-book of this, it needs an Irish accent to do her full justice – and her flawed protagonist rarely judges the people she comes across but takes them all as they are. More please, lots more.