Gun Street Girl: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel
Just between us, I have always found police procedurals to be much like Chinese food restaurants – when they are good, they are excellent; when they are bad, you’d rather be served dog vomit. I don’t think there is much of a grey area in between. You either love the novel or the dim sung, or leave it on the table half-read or partially eaten.
The above metaphor has yet one more apt note of comparison. Seemingly, the majority of hacks who think they are writers turn to crime fiction, with the runner-up being tales of bleak post-apocalyptic worlds which send the reader diving across the living room in a desperate dash for the liquor cabinet. The cook who can’t make jammy toast without a recipe turns to chicken balls (themselves a work of fiction), followed by boilers of gooey pasta drowned in a red sea of tomato sauce. More wine, sir?
I know of what I speak, for I have dined out on many a lousy meal and read many a lousy novel. However, part of all our lot as educated humanists is to suffer for the greater good. We’ll leave the restaurants aside, but as far as crime fiction goes, I read and review these novels so that I can direct you to the few that are worthwhile. We reviewers are the pearl divers of literature – we hold our breath and plunge in so that you can enjoy the jewels without having your hands stink of oyster ooze.
Gun Street Girl by the Northern Ireland author Adrian McKinty is exactly what a police procedural should be: an intriguing case in an unusual setting, original yet logical, familiar and yet one learns things about the world along the way. It all sounds easy enough, which I suppose is why so many (ahem) writers think they can pull it off, but it’s not. Like a great dish, or a great piece of music, all the elements or flavours or instruments must work together in an organic flow of balance.
The error so many crime writers make is that they take a plot idea, which in itself might be quite good, and then hide it behind show-off scenes of Hot Sex! Hot Violence! Hot Under the Collar Cop! I know that you know exactly what I mean, for you have read that book many times before. Those writers don’t trust their own story well enough to just let it happen because, I speculate, they have a deep-inside insecurity about their own ability to cook the food without a mound of garlic, or play the song without an ear-ripping guitar riff. It’s like the difference between The Beatles and, um, Slade.
There is of course precious little I’m willing to share about the plot of Gun Street Girl. I hate ruining the fun for readers and besides, any author like Adrian McKinty who is so skilled at inventing murders might want to test it out on the bastard who ruined the surprise. So please let it suffice that there are murders, a tie-in with international diplomacy and arms dealing, and it virtually all takes place in and around Belfast in 1985. I will drop one small observation: I wondered why Gun Street Girl was chosen as the title, for the events and personages involved seemed more a sub-plot. But when you get to the very, very end of the book … yes, this is the perfectly chosen title.
This is the third in McKinty’s Sean Duffy series and if I ever have the time, I dearly want to read the first two. Duffy is a senior detective in the Carrick detachment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). He is in his mid-thirties, single, and a lover of an eclectic array of music occasionally enhanced by recreational drugs and fine Scotch. (Oh don’t look so shocked, so are you and you know it!) There is a small, yet clearly stated homage to Colin Dexter’s magnificent creation Inspector Morse part-way through Gun Street Girl. Indeed, I can see that McKinty and I share an equal love for those great novels. If, by the way, you have only ever seen the brilliant Morse TV series starring the late John Thaw, do read the original novels. Reading is ever so much more visual than television. Duffy is in no way a copycat character, yet one can see him aging into that same cynical, isolated romanticism as R.E. Morse.
So I like the principal very much, as I equally do the other police and all the suspects and associates who enter through the pages of Gun Street Girl. It is rather like one of those meta theatre pieces set in a large mansion with many actors. Gun Street Girl takes place in Duffy’s world, yet the audience might be equally entertained by following one of the other characters. And if you think that’s an easy trick to pull off in popular fiction, just try it sometime. If you can create twelve characters, or heck even three, without at least one of them turning into a cardboard cartoon of convenient exposition, you have under-explored skills.
The best of it though is setting the novel in the Belfast of1985. Until quite recently, I lived for a year quite close to Belfast, so do accept my testimony that the shadow of The Troubles still edges across the land. Peace has been restored, yet trust is an edgy and easily startled beast. Placing Gun Street Girl around the time of the Anglo-Irish Accord, which caused the Unionists to hate Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and its employees in the RUC, is a masterstroke. Just imagine every time you got in your car if first you had to get on your hands and knees to check underneath for mercury tilt bombs. If Franz Kafka had been born in say 1950 in Belfast he would have emigrated. The justified paranoia would have been too much for him.
More than that edgy, violent mise en scene of riots and hate, the beauty of 1985 is that it is near to the last year before detective work (and detective novels) became an endless series of internet searches. Oh it is so pleasant to read scenes where detectives knock on doors and sit people down to develop connections rather than simply Googling old grammar school yearbooks. A lack of broadband can be a beautiful gift for the reader.
Speaking of gifts, as birthdays and vacations take place across 2015, you are well-advised to purchase Gun Street Girl for any mystery aficionado. Just don’t open it yourself, for you won’t stop reading it and then you’ll have to buy another copy for your friend. Then again, you’d be making a talented Irish author very happy.
|Seventh Street Books
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|Mystery, Crime, Thriller