‘Don’t you know, you can’t go home again’
Don’t you know, you can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe was famously warned, but I have done so, for my writerly sins, returning at the age of thirty-five with my young family to the small rural community in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, where I grew up, to work as a journalist and writer. Over the past fourteen years, I’ve written ten novels, mostly crime and historical fiction. Along the way, I’ve had many sleepless nights and anxious hours mapping out my fictional landscape. Little did I know when I started on this journey that the past is a tougher assignment for a journalist than any war-torn hotspot around the globe.
One of the blessings and curses of my profession in such a close-knit community is that people tell me many stories. A lot of the time, they aren’t very good or interesting stories. The notion that their words might find their way into print triggers a peculiar energy in some people, turning them into garrulous vessels of gossip. Occasionally, however, someone will tell a tale so powerful that it etches itself deeply in my imagination, reconfiguring with its long shadows the place I call home, this corner of the world that turns out to be a landscape saturated with secrets.
In my Celcius Daly detective series, set along the Northern Ireland border, I use the conventions of the detective genre to excavate the secret narratives of my locale. It feels safer that way for me as a writer, and it’s also a protective device for readers, giving them the illusion that they are in the familiar company of a middle-aged, divorced, and slightly depressive sleuth, one whom they have met countless times before in other settings, with other crimes to solve, and who will somehow triumph over evil once again in spite of his flaws.
I’ve immersed Inspector Daly in the Ulster landscape that I know and love—the gurgling, treacherous bogs, the mist-shrouded loughs, the gruesome-looking blackthorn trees, and decomposing cottages—a rain-soaked landscape where loose bits of the past are still floating through the shadows. However, in my new book, Murder Memoir Murder, I’ve decided to cast off some of these conventions and tell a true story about the parish I grew up in.
Murder Memoir Murder is simultaneously a memoir and a crime fiction story involving a hunt for a missing IRA informer. At its core, it is a memoir, as the title suggests, but it is also a meditation on truth and storytelling. The novel explores two true unsolved murders in my parish – one that took place in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, the other in 1982 at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles – the story of two families left without justice and the web of connections hidden in the heart of a tightly-knit community.
The first murder was the killing of an IRA man by his Catholic neighbours. My grandfather, who was about ten, was arrested and detained by the police after they found a handkerchief covered in blood in his pocket. The toxic and half-buried trauma of the murder resurfaced in the parish sixty years later when an IRA gang held my family at gunpoint, hijacked our car and used it to murder a police officer. I was eleven at the time, and to ensure my parents did not tip off the security forces when the IRA left, the gang leader handed me a bullet. He warned me that the IRA would use it to shoot my father if he contacted the police before the appointed time.
Murder Memoir Murder is structured into two interwoven narratives, one set in 1982, the other in the present day. The former narrative charts how my parents were plunged into moral and physical peril by the hijacking. At the time, the border region of South Tyrone was a pressure cooker of expediency and violent acts, with IRA and loyalist paramilitaries roaming the countryside, engaged in a brutal series of tit-for-tat murders. I’ve dramatized and compressed real-life events, not only the hijacking, but the subsequent police investigation and the IRA persecution of my parents to intimidate them into not giving evidence in the court case. In the book an intricate dance between silence and truth-telling takes place between my father and the detective, with both knowing more about the hijacking than they initially reveal. At one point, unable to bear the tension any longer, my father takes his shotgun to his IRA tormentors. An air of menace and tantalising truths dominate the narrative.
While I describe my parents struggling with telling the truth, I chart my own struggle with writing the truth. Questions have lingered in my mind about the identity of the IRA man who gave me the bullet. Deprived of a violent death or a long prison sentence, he appeared to have vanished in the way a plane vanishes from a radar. In the intervening decades, a strange protective silence has fallen around him. In the novel, he becomes a figure of fascination. Why does no one in the parish, my parents included, talk about him or even mention his name? Was he an informer and did he betray his comrades? Why did the police not pursue or arrest him? The search for answers gives the second narrative its momentum as I interview former IRA men, visit graveyards, and search through newspaper archives. I sift through scraps of rumour, family folklore and the fragmentary reports of the missing IRA man. The bullet he pushed into my hands on the morning of the hijacking becomes the seed of a story about betrayal and belonging, a story I become compelled to finish in spite of the dangerous consequences of writing about my family and my neighbours.
(c) Anthony J. Quinn
About Murder Memoir Murder:
Murder Memoir Murder is both a memoir and a crime fiction story involving a hunt for a missing IRA informer, set in the landscape of a rural parish in South Tyrone. It is also a meditation on truth and storytelling. The novel investigates two true unsolved murders in County Tyrone – one that took place in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, the other in 1982 at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles – and the web of connections hidden in a tightly-knit community. At the heart of this true story with fictionalised elements is a searing and honest portrait of home and how the author’s family organised itself after the Troubles.
Anthony J. Quinn’s nine crime novels have received critical acclaim from The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Express, Der Spiegel, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Irish Times, the Irish Independent and other newspapers. His debut novel Disappeared was shortlisted for a Strand Literary Award in the United States by the book critics of the San Francisco Chronicle, The LA Times, The Washington Post and other US reviewers. It was also listed by Kirkus Reviews as one of the top ten thrillers of 2012. After its UK publication in 2014, Disappeared was selected by the Daily Mail and The Sunday Times as one of their Best Novels of the Year. It was also long listed for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. He currently lectures in creative writing at Queen’s University Belfast and runs the Lost Landmarks storytelling project in Counties Cavan and Tyrone.