Crime writer offers dark relief with metaphysical detective novel set on a holy island
One evening last April during the first lockdown, I was meant to be working on the final draft of my crime novel Turncoat, a metaphysical detective tale set during the Troubles. Some writers work best without distractions, some work better with distractions – I’m definitely in the latter brigade. Bored by the empty page, I put down my pen and slipped outside to breathe the twilight air, leaving the side door open, a boot wedged next to the hinge, in the hope that the evening air would somehow creep into the house and lend my book the mood of foreboding I was hoping to create.
I wandered through the trees that swept down to the road at the front of our house. Tiny bats swooped and darted overhead, too immersed in their pursuit of insects to notice my restless walk. The couples, who had taken to strolling past our house every evening since the lockdown began, had all returned to their homes. Beyond the road, the narrow glen lay full of darkness.
Ten years ago, with my wife and our four children, I moved back to this secluded hollow in the foothills of the Sperrin mountains in Northern Ireland. On the hill to the right, I could see, through the trees, the lights of the rambling farmhouse belonging to my parents, Marie and Cathal, now in their mid-70s and self-isolating, and the darkening lane where we often greeted each other and chatted. There were other lights deeper amid the trees. Lights that I could only see in winter when the leaves of the beech, hazel and ash trees fell, the lights of the homes where my sisters also lived with their young families.
The only sounds of the world were the distant roar of lorries and delivery vans carried several miles by the south-westerly winds. I looked at the pine trees, dark strokes against the sky, lying thick to the south, filling the glen where I could walk for ages without meeting another soul. In moving back here to South Tyrone, to the place where I’d grown up, I’d wanted to surrender to the emptiness of this wild glen at twilight, leaving everything, all my worries and fears, in the shadows of its trees swaying in the evening breezes. It was strange the forces that I felt emanating here, but they were good. For a decade, as I helped raise our children and worked as a reporter for the local newspaper, I wrote every evening, nine novels in total, wrapping myself in this cloak of shadows and scribbling to midnight. I was completely content. Nothing could threaten the glow of satisfaction that I felt.
However, this evening, my thoughts had ground to a complete halt. I worried about the lockdown ahead and the effects of the pandemic. My new book, due to be published the following autumn, might not have a future. I might not have a future, at least one that was recognisable to me. I knew there would be many evenings of anxious thoughts ahead. This wouldn’t be the first, I could be sure of that. More than anything else I had done, the writing of this book was going to be a struggle against time, its grim passing, day after day, as the toll of fatalities and economic hardships inexorably mounted
Like everyone else in Ireland, my wife, Clare, and I drove home as normal on March 12. We parked our cars and locked the doors. We folded away the school uniforms of our children, and watched as the family calendar, which had been filled with gatherings, events and travel plans, dissolved into oblivion. We knew nothing of the life that awaited us, what our society would look like when the pandemic was over, what sort of jobs we would be doing. We hoped to survive Covid and endure the months of isolation and boredom that threatened to wear us down as we marched from room to room, and up and down the garden, counting the steps.
The night drew in, and I could hear the river that flowed between my house and my parents. It was not much of a river for most of the year, but after heavy rain it overflowed and became part of a web of streams that flooded the fields and turned the hidden springs and wells into living mouths that gurgled all night. It was completely dark, but I walked at ease. I had never been afraid of this landscape; even though it had once been overrun by warring IRA men and soldiers; even in the shadows and knowing all that was hidden there, further up the mountain, where lights winked at other lights, the homes of our neighbours surrounded by thickets of gorse and blackthorn, metaphors for the guarded and wayward men and women who were born there and the paths they followed. I was going to publish a crime novel about the complicated things that happened in this landscape during the Troubles, a story that had lain frozen for years but was now flowing into me like water, and brimming over.
I turned and gazed back up at our house. Clare was standing in the kitchen, sipping a cup of tea. A doctor and asthma sufferer, she was due to begin working at the local Covid Assessment Centre in a few days’ time. She knew, more than any of us, that life was a continuous battle against invisible pathogens. She and her colleagues had been granted no indulgences, no period of time to fret or scour the internet for doom-laden headlines. She had had to overcome her fears and enter the fight against the virus, persuading herself that it was for moments like these that she had entered medicine. Something had filled her and was holding her firm, even now, standing so still in the kitchen, surrounded by twilight shadows. Seeing her there in the sanctuary of our home, I felt impatient and embarrassed to be preoccupied by fears for my book.
I returned to the house, removed the boot wedged in the door and turned the lock. Writing a book about the Troubles felt fraught with danger, but it was also my way of challenging myself and excavating the hidden stories of the landscape that I called home. I lifted the draft copy of Turncoat onto my lap, the world of my fugitive detective opened, and I felt a shiver of excitement.
Now that the book is due to be published, I’m hoping that it’s setting will provide the perfect refuge for readers to hunker down and see out these strange times we are living through.
(c) Anthony J Quinn
About Turncoat by Anthony J Quinn:
The sole survivor of a murderous ambush, a Belfast police detective is forced into a desperate search for a mysterious informer that takes him to a holy island on Lough Derg, a place shrouded in strange mists and hazy rain, where nothing is as it first appears to be.
A keeper of secrets and a purveyor of lies, the detective finds himself surrounded by enemies disguised as pilgrims, and is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the purgatorial island, where he must confront a series of disturbing secrets and ghosts in his own life.
Haunting and unsettling, Turncoat probes the legacy of the Troubles, the loss of collective memories and the moral consequences for the individual. It is a story of guilt, survival and the terrible price of self-knowledge, told through the voice of a detective with a double life. Descending into paranoia, he uncovers a sinister panorama of cover-ups and conspiracies. The closer he edges to the truth, the deeper he is drawn into the currents of power, violence and guilt engulfing his country…
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