When I was putting together ideas for the novel that became The Burning Boy, I talked with various Dublin friends about their memories of the gay scene in the 1980s. One, reminiscing about the sparse ‘women’s nights’ in a room above a pub, suddenly paused and looked down at the floor. ‘God it was grim,’ she said.
Like the first two books in my Dublin crime trilogy, A Famished Heart and The Rosary Garden, The Burning Boy is set in a time that is both relatively recent and irretrievably distant. The success of the 2015 marriage equality referendum catapulted Ireland into the ranks of the most LGBT-friendly countries in the world. When the results came in, relatives and friends sent me updates and photographs of the scenes on the streets around Dublin Castle. My brother’s text – Are you coming back now? – brought a tear to my eye. Like so many gay people who left Ireland in the eighties I could only marvel from afar – my life was now elsewhere and it was too late for a replay.
When you talk about the gay community in the Dublin of the 80s you soon find yourself talking about death and murder. Death mainly in the form of the AIDS crisis, which took so many bright lives and tainted attitudes to gay people for decades, but also two awful killings that changed the lives of the Dublin LGBT community. The first was of Charles Self, a gregarious and well-known man, savagely stabbed to death by someone he brought home with him. Or so it is presumed, because the murder was never solved. The investigation into his death somehow turned into an investigation of the gay community itself, as a widening circle of men were questioned, photographed, profiled. Detectives called to people’s homes and workplaces. This being the eighties, and homosexual acts still criminalised, many were not open about their sexuality, and exposure carried real risks. Some men left the country as a result, part of a great wave of emigration that, over that decade, numbered 500,000 out of a population of 3.5 million. The killing of Declan Flynn in September 1982 in a ‘gay bashing’ incident in Fairview Park sparked unprecedented outrage when Judge Gannon gave the five convicted teenagers suspended sentences. This prompted the first ever march in Dublin by the gay community and its allies and the beginnings of the fight back. It’s been described as ‘Ireland’s Stonewall’.
Both crimes influenced the plot of my book, as well as other events from that strange fevered decade. The eighties were grim in many ways, but contained within them certain points of light, an inkling of a more progressive Ireland that would come into being, though at the time it seemed we were going backwards not forwards. One of these places of light, for me, was the Temple Bar district. In those days it was a shabby but fertile place of low rent studios, rehearsal rooms, independent shops. A ramshackle enclave on hold for redevelopment and the wrecker’s ball. It was also the location of the Hirschfield Centre, the first bricks and mortar home for gay organisations, for activism and socialising. In one scene in the book, straight middle-aged detective Vincent Swan finds himself dancing in a similar gay community centre, a fish out of water, trying to blend in.
The book opens with the discovery of an off-duty Garda, Keiran Lynch, in a cruising area of the Phoenix Park, badly injured. If he had been found dead, things might have been straightforward, but in the gap between him being found and his death in hospital , evidence is lost and Gina Considine has omitted to mention she saw Keiran the night before in a gay bar.
In the previous books, Gina has been cagey about her private circumstances – astute readers will have guessed the reason. She suffers from a certain amount of internalised homophobia, but her fears she will lose her job aren’t unfounded. In fact, her boss has heard the rumours and is pressuring her.
As their colleagues drag their feet, ambivalent in their loyalties to a fellow officer revealed as gay, Considine and Swan try to seek out the complex truth of Kieran Lynch’s life and death, embarking on a sleepless odyssey through night-time Dublin to locate his lovers and friends. The search leads them to other, intersecting, crimes, and the cunning vagabonds Mottie and Jess, who were under Kieran’s protection. They have a stolen painting of a burning martyr, a bright immortal icon that becomes both a clue to Kieran’s fate and a touchstone of better things to come.
The Burning Boy is a thriller invoking a particular time and place, ‘grim’ as my friend observed, but containing the stirrings of personal liberation and brighter futures. For the individual characters involved as well as the country. The darkest times hide within them the seeds of what is to come.
(c) Nicola White
About The Burning Boy:
A murder that no-one wants to solve…
Dublin 1986. The murder of an off-duty officer in Phoenix Park should have brought down the full power of the Dublin police force. But Kieran Lynch was found in a notorious gay cruising ground, so even as the press revels in the scandal, some of the Murder Squad are reluctant to investigate.
Only Detectives Vincent Swan and Gina Considine are willing to search out the difficult truth, walking the streets of nighttime Dublin to find Kieran’s lovers and friends. But Gina has her own secret that means she must withhold vital evidence. When a fire rips through Temple Bar and another man is killed, she must decide what price she is willing to pay to find a murderer.
A beautiful and haunting mystery, perfect for readers of Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Tana French and Adrian McKinty.
Order your copy online here.