Paul Waters is the author of Blackwatertown, a crime thriller set on the border in the 1950s.
I come from a family of secret policemen. That’s the reason I wrote my crime thriller Blackwatertown. It’s not that they worked in espionage. They weren’t spies. It’s just that we never ever talked about it. And no wonder, when you consider what they got up to – hobnobbing with royalty (see pic below), faking ambushes and invading Monaghan (to be fair, that was an accident, though they got as far as the centre of Clones before realising) or signing Charlie Haughey’s arrest warrant (that’s got to hurt your career).
They were police before and after, north and south of the border. We never talked about it because loose lips lead to mercury tilts – and you don’t want one of those under your car of a morning.
A lot was kept under wraps back then. School uniforms, for instance. For those who got a lift to school, the car would never start until every inch of uniform was covered up with long black coats. The regular route to class passed through a loyalist area of Belfast, where visible Catholicism might be spotted and noted, along with the car number plate, at any red light.
Overall, we got off very lightly compared to others. When things did occur, as they did to many families, the trick was to never talk about it. Feign confusion. Be vague. Had it even happened at all? Occasionally the signs were hard to miss as bomb damage. Other times the clues were a little more subtle – like funeral cars being let pass without hindrance through British Army checkpoints.
Looking back now, I wonder how many were really fooled by the performance? I suspect that those with a particular interest in who really shot who, knew what they needed, whether or not they acted upon it. But the “whatever you say, say nothing” lesson was firmly imprinted on us – on me anyway.
Which is one reason writing fiction did not come early or easily. I’ve helped many other people tell their stories on TV or the radio. Not a problem – rather a privilege, a joy and sometimes a duty. But writing fiction reveals self. Opening up makes you vulnerable. And not just in the please-like-me/like-my-writing way – though I’m sure I’m as susceptible to that as anyone else. But vulnerable in a deeper, visceral, northern way.
That may also be why I set my book Blackwatertown in the 1950s. It’s fiction, but draws upon real stories not recorded in the history books or celebrated in song. Can anyone seriously still feel cross or personally threatened by allusion to lawbreaking by the law enforcers so many years later? It turns out that the answers are yes, and yes. I bet CJ Sansom and SJ Parris don’t have this trouble setting stories in Tudor times.
The ‘50s feel like a forgotten time in Northern Ireland, BTV – Before TV, eclipsed by the assertiveness and noise and horror of the decades that followed. I’ve been gripped for years by the writing of Eoin McNamee and Maurice Leitch, who pick their way through the dreamworld before The Troubles. I wanted to tell other tales from back then. They were too good to let be forgotten.
Inconvenient truths and misfits make good stories. Catholics in the RUC fit into both categories. Simultaneously not to be trusted in the most menial employment, (according to a Northern Ireland Prime Minister), while deemed to have the right stuff to escort a visiting king or princess (see pic). Or more relevantly, be shot at defending the state that deemed them inherently inferior.
My protagonist, Jolly Macken, is a Catholic police sergeant, demoted and banished to the sleepy border village of Blackwatertown after inadvertently surfing a long rock down a mountain into the North’s loudest Lambeg drum. RIP drum and get thee hence, Macken. He’d be happy be left alone to walk the Mournes and fish for dollaghan. But over the course of a week in Blackwatertown he uncovers dark family secrets, falls in love, accidentally starts a war, and is hailed a hero and branded a traitor. There’s also the small matter of finding who killed his brother, even if that killer is a fellow officer. When Blackwatertown explodes into violence, who can Macken trust? And is betrayal the only way to survive?
It’s not all grim. Gallows humour is the funniest. Laughs can feel more liberating than the liberation struggle. Andrea Camilleri taught me that accidental nakedness perks up everyone. For me, the key was moving south of the border and then moving away for a while. Gaining the space to unlearn looking over my shoulder all the time, and to embrace life’s and the story’s possibilities and absurdities.
But how did these stories, real and imagined, get their hooks into me, what with us being so secretive and close-lipped and all?
Somebody blabbed. Somebody always does.
(c) Paul Waters
Photograph shows RUC DI Michael Murphy (great uncle Mike) escorting King George VI in 1946.
When maverick police sergeant Jolly Macken is banished to the sleepy 1950s Irish border village of Blackwatertown, he vows to find the killer of his brother – even if the murderer is inside the police.
But a lot can happen in a week. Over seven days Macken falls in love, uncovers dark family secrets, accidentally starts a war and is hailed a hero and branded a traitor. When Blackwatertown explodes into violence, who can he trust?
And is betrayal the only way to survive?
‘Extremely intriguing with intricate twists and turns’ Frederick Forsyth
Order your copy online here.