We have been looking at Northern Ireland this week, starting with music and a musicians memoir, then moving to a historic novel that takes place at the beginning so of the struggle for Independence. Today’s mystery novel moves to the present–14 years after the peace has been signed.
Destination: Northern Ireland
The Irish just north of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, living in a land of sloughs and fens, are used to watching out for danger, and keeping their silence. This makes a policeman’s job in Disappeared that much more complicated. And when a priest discovers a grisly corpse everyone seems to run for cover–like the duck hunters hiding in their shelters. The wavery line between truth and lie or imagination gets even more interesting because a major character–the one who has disappeared— has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
A priest says that man is not the only one “…to have dementia, to feel unsure of what’s going on in this country…The Troubles went on too long, but there’s a prevailing feeling they ended too easily.”
Novels are devilishly complex to construct, and Disappeared is a devilishly complex novel. In most elements, Quinn gets it right. In a few areas, this reader wished he had spent more time on the finishing details.
First the good stuff. I’m curious to know how someone who took sides in the Irish conflict would react to Disappeared, which is all about the old wounds that veterans of that struggle still pick at, even though the Peace agreement with Great Britain was signed several years ago. But in my reading, Quinn manages to handle the struggle with an even hand. His detective, Celcius Daly, though Catholic, never could bring himself to join the violent resistance of the IRA. At one point, though he believes the IRA committed murder, he says,”Republican paramilitaries aren’t the only pack of dogs about.”
And there’s a constant awareness of religion with Priests and a Monastery and rituals all taking a place. “Religion and violence all mixed up like mixing drinks, thought Daly, dangerous and intoxicating.”
Nevertheless, he takes the side of former IRA members against the Special Forces who still seem to harbor old grudges. Like Aurelio Zen, the Italian detective introduced to me on Masterpiece Mysteries Vendetta, Cabal, Ratking, Daly fights for justice even when that pits him against his bosses in the establishment. Quinn proves there are bad and good eggs on both sides of the battle in Ireland.
Second strong point–Quinn uses the location in the fens of Ireland, replete with fog and entangled water and land to stand for the entanglement of the two forces in The Troubles. His descriptions really take the reader to the area. The metaphor is strong–almost overdone–but effective.
The Special Forces boss says, “Your hunt in the shadows for the truth will never end.”
Third strong point–the plot is gripping with the classic mystery technique of false clues and shifting suspicions.
Fourth strong point–dialogue is snappy (with the exception of a point made below about confessions) and generally presented in concert with actions or character descriptions that show us what is going on. This challenge is handled well. And he uses some nice turns of phrase. For instance a corpse shows “haggard exhaustion in his grizzled face.” Or this: “the intervening years time had doodled all over Bingham’s features.”
Now for the weaknesses.
I found the lead character as slippery to pin down as the fog around him. When Robert Wilson’s Seville detective Javier Falcón prepares a meal, we know what he is cooking and can tell whether he is emotionally upset, enjoying life calmly, or too busy to bother with food by what he eats. Similarly, we get a window into his soul be seeing the details of his clothes, his furniture, his office. Too often Quinn stints on the details. Quinn “fixed something to eat.” The best scenes are at his father’s farm where he is free to brood as he digs potatoes, but we don’t get enough of that, and get almost no clue as to where he has been in life before he showed up on these pages.
Second, the denouement is weak. Every time Daly has a leap forward in gaining information, it comes because a character who has previously been evasive or tight-lipped suddenly spills the beans. These sudden confessions are not well motivated, and the fact that they happen so often with so many different people, seems to me to indicate a certain laziness in figuring out more interesting ways to present information.
Third, although I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading about Northern Ireland lately, it would be helpful if the author provided a preface that spelled out who the various groups were and what their role was during the fight for Independence. Some of that information could have been incorporated into information about Daly’s past, since he and his family seem to encapsulate much about the struggles. Even Daly’s nemesis Irwin says, “Who do you think it was? The real IRA, the continuity IRA, the INLA, or the truly, deadly, deeply IRA?”
I have no idea how many, and what quality novels have been written in the 14 years since the signing of the peace treaty in Northern Ireland, but I would certainly recommend that you put Disappeared on your travel bookshelf if you want to know more about or are planning travel to Northern Ireland.
You will find more than one writer by the name of Anthony Quinn, not to mention a famous actor, but this Anthony Quinn, a part-time journalist, has just written his first novel. Since he was born in Northern Ireland, he knows the territory he writes about in this political/mystery/thriller.
The author provided a review copy in e-book form for me to read. The formatting was not terrific, but sometimes review copies are not complete. So if you read it on a Kindle or other e-reader, please let me know if those problems were solved. Also, please let me know if you are aware of other novels written in the past 14 years that shed light on Northern Irelands progress since the Troubles.
Photos here are from Flickr, used with a Creative Commons license. Please click on the photo for more information about the photographer.