Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy is a Catholic cop in Northern Ireland in 1981 in a force dominated by protestants and targeted by paramilitary republicans. A few weeks after being posted to the CID in Carrickfergus, the Maze hunger strikers start to die, the whole province erupting into violent protest. Between having to don riot gear to help his beleaguered colleagues, Duffy has two new cases to investigate – the death of a homosexual man, his hand severed, and the apparent suicide of an ex-wife of a Maze hunger striker. This is quickly added to by the murder of a second known homosexual man. It seems that Duffy might be investigating the first known serial killer on the island, one that is taking advantage of the limited police resources. As Duffy works away at the case he has to negotiate the complex terrain of IRA, loyal paramilitaries and the security forces, none of whom prove cooperative. Duffy though has the bit between his teeth and is unwilling to let the case slide into the unsolved pile.
As an Irish police procedural, The Cold, Cold Ground is right up there with Brian McGilloway’s Inspector Devlin and John Brady’s Matt Minogue series. In fact, it might just be the best example of a police procedural so far produced on the island. It’s pretty difficult to pick holes in any aspect of the story, with perhaps the exception of forgetting to return a submachine gun left on the hall table back to the barracks for two whole weeks (not the kind of item that would escape one’s attention). McKinty immerses the reader in Carrickfergus and Belfast in 1981 – its politics, its riots, its policing, its fashions, music and social relations, its sense of place, without it ever swamping the narrative. The attention to detail is excellent. Sean Duffy is a complex, flawed and bright lead character, out of his depth and desperately trying to stay afloat amongst paramilitary groups and police and security service politics, and determined to solve the two cases. He’s surrounded by a well realised support cast, some of whom are real figures, other fictional characters. The plot twists and turns and is nicelyy paced, and McKinty shows his usual flair for poetic prose. A great read from an author who consistently turns out interesting and insightful books. The only let down – I have to wait for the next Duffy book to be published.