A homophobic serial killer with a penchant for opera. And a young woman's suicide that may yet turn out to be murder.
THE COLD COLD GROUND arrived announcing the beginning of a new series, with a new character by Adrian McKinty and I was intrigued... and worried. It's been stinking hot in these parts, so I'm already sleep deprived. I wasn't sure I could cope with another all night reading session.
So I got cunning, and started the book early in the day. And ended up with an all day reading session. Simply could ... not ... put ... the thing down.
THE COLD COLD GROUND is therefore obviously another outstanding book from this outstanding writer. It is, however, a rather different viewpoint and a different timeframe to previous books. Sean Duffy is a Catholic copper in a Protestant police force in 1981 Ireland. A tricky job in a tricky place. A place where, as a cop, your early morning routine is coffee, brush, dress and check under your car for mercury tilt bombs before you drive to work. Where there are places that you simply do not go unless you are in a armour plated police 4WD. Even then you can get caught, and will get shot at - with malice and a clear intent to kill. There's no messing around in this world. It's dangerous, your life can turn on a look, or a thought, or just simply being in the wrong place with the wrong name.
In the middle of this climate of distrust and fear the idea that there could be a serial killer lurking, targeting gay men is strangely a novelty. There's a line in the book about most serial killers being able to satisfy their urges by joining one of the paramilitaries. Needless to say this is not a book that pulls punches. It's restrained sure, but it's pointed, carefully drawing out the story and the sub-threads, subduing the delivery to make sure that you get the points being made. And there definitely are points which you will feel are being hammered home hard, but at least it's done with a book of poetry. Take, as an example, the opening paragraph:
"The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs intersecting with exacting surfaces. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife. I watched with the others by the Land Rover on Knockagh Mountain. No one spoke. Words were inadequate. You needed a Picasso for this scene, not a poet."
This is exactly the sort of thing that goes on throughout the book - drawing a picture of that time in Ireland that's stark, clear, sobering and moving. Drawing a picture of the life of Sean Duffy that's memorable, alone, not quite a lone wolf, but definitely a man who dances to his own tune. Not exactly brave in the face of all comers, but good and right and quietly determined. Not completely stupid, not an energiser bunny, not a man given to flights of fancy, he's alone, lonely and ever so slightly sad.
He's also a man that just fits into this portrayal of Northern Island. Whilst there's no forgetting that the book is about the solving of the deaths of two men - shot in quick succession, the strange juxtaposition of each other's hands beside their bodies, seemingly signalling something paramilitary, both men's backgrounds pointing elsewhere, it's also a book that cleverly sets up a lot of information about this character. His background, his decision to put himself seemingly in an impossible job in an impossible place. But once the investigation gets going, and the intricacies and expectations of life in Northern Island start to play themselves out, the actual solution is considerably less clear cut than it initially seems to be.
Ultimately what THE COLD COLD GROUND does better than anything else is show how complicated life in that time, in that place could be. How the politics of power, hate and influence play themselves out, how a copper in a small town can hang on and try to make a difference in a world that's - frankly - gone completely and utterly mad.