Northern Ireland

NEVER ASK THE DEAD . . . Between the covers

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This is the third in a compelling series featuring police officer Owen Sheen. He is Belfast born and bred, but is currently employed by London’s Metropolitan Police. He has been seconded to work in his home city heading up SHOT – the Serious Historical Offences Team. Inevitably, these historical offences are all bound in to the  horrendous sectarian violence committed during the bizarrely euphemistic ‘Troubles’. But now, since the Good Friday Agreement, hatchets are buried, enemies have become friends and all is serene on the sunlit uplands. Isn’t it? Actually, no. Former gunmen, torturers, knee-cappers, car-bombers and violent thugs are now in politics, schmoozing and shaking diplomatic hands at the highest level. But beneath the men in suits – yes, mostly men, because parts of Ulster society remains hugely patriarchal – there are still dozens of killers, some as yet uncaught, but others pardoned by political expediency.

Sheen’s latest case concerns an investigation into ‘The Cyprus Three’ – three IRA operatives gunned down by SAS men on a street in Cyprus. The official line is that the three were about to plant a huge bomb to destroy British troops.The courts decided that the killings were lawful, despite the three Irish people being unarmed. The more elderly among us will recognise that this scenario is a mirror image of a real event – the killing of three IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988.

Screen Shot 2021-02-17 at 18.05.34Sheen is given the task of re-investigating the Cyprus shootings, with a strong hint that it would suit the contemporary political narrative were the SAS  men to be found guilty of unlawful killing. As he turns over the stones, Sheen isn’t surprised to see all kinds of unpleasant creatures scuttling away from the light. He has his own issues, as his own brother was the collateral damage of a terrorist bomb in their childhood street while they were kicking a football about.

As his investigation mines deeper into the landfill of lies and deception that makes up Belfasts’s political history, Sheen is drawn into the search for a legendary double agent, nicknamed TOPBRASS. He has played both sides – the IRA hierarchy and the British Special Branch. But why is he still ‘an item’ in the malevolent undertow of Ulster politics, and how high are his connections in ‘high places’?

Screen Shot 2021-02-21 at 18.34.42Donnelly has written a brilliant and terrifying novel that should remind people that despite the outward air of calm and reconstruction there is a parallel Belfast – a place where grievances are bone-deep and still burning white hot.

We can sit in our suburban homes and tut-tut about the barbarity of ISIS, Boko Haram or Hezbollah, but Gary Donnelly (right) reminds us that acts of incalculable horror were carried out on a regular basis on the streets of a British city by the IRA and its Unionist opponents. The only thing that I can take from this savage history lesson is that religious zealotry fuels bigotry, which in turn provides the spark to the tinder of sectarian violence. This is a great read, but not a happy one. Never Ask The Dead is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

SO SAY THE FALLEN – Between the covers



Neville-Stuart-Colour-c-Philip-ONeill-Photography2Stuart Neville (left) returns with another hard-bitten and edgy tale of life and crimes in Northern Ireland. Set in a fictional village on the edge of Belfast, we are reunited with DCI Serena Flanagan, who first appeared in Those We Left Behind. Like much of life in Ulster, fictional and real, religion and the stresses and strains it places on secular life is never far from the surface. The sacred influence in this case is provided by the Reverend Peter McKay. The clergyman is a widower, but we find that he has been taking his parochial duties above and beyond what is normally expected. The recipient of his pastoral care is Roberta, the attractive wife of Henry Garrick.

The unfortunate Garrick has been of little solace to his wife in recent times, as he was lucky to escape with his life after a catastrophic road accident which resuted in him losing both legs, and rendering him totally dependent on his wife and visiting carers. When he is found dead one morning, with empty sachets of morphine next to his bed, it is clear that the poor man has had enough of his living death, and decided to make it final. Flanagan is sent to the scene, and as is the way with these things, her bosses expect her to sign off the death as a suicide.

But this is crime fiction, and regular readers will know that suicides in these stories are seldom what they seem to be. They will also know that police Inspectors are rarely happy, healthy people, untroubled by their job and with idyllic family lives. Flanagan doesn’t buck the trend. She is recovering from cancer, and the intensity she brings to the job is having a destructive effect on her relationship with her schoolteacher husband and their two children.

Flanagan has a nagging suspicion about the death of Mr Garrick, and she is troubled, not by the arrangement of family photographs around the bed, but by the one that is missing – that of the Garrick’s young daughter – and only child – who was drowned in a tragic accident in Spain.

This is a cleverly written book on many levels. We know early in the piece that Henry Garrick’s death is not what it seems to be. We can also make a shrewd guess as to who is responsible. Neville uses the narrow space occupied by the few unknowns left to us to expand the characters, describe their unsettled personal lives, and paint a mesmerising picture of the ordinary – but strangely intense – lives of church-goers in the parish of Morganstown. The final action set piece, as Flanagan homes in on the killer, is as gripping as anything Neville has written. The title? It is taken from lines written by the American writer Dennis Lehane.

“I can’t just live for the other world. I need to live in this one now.
So say the fallen. So they’ve said since time began.”

You can buy So Say The Fallen from good booksellers, and from Amazon.

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