Take Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct thrillers.
Add first-person narrative from a smart, and funny, lead detective.
Mix in a few large vodka gimlets and dark stouts, then set it all down in Ireland in 1981, when hunger strikes and protests lit a spark on the unrest fueled by political militias, gang violence and terrorism.
All those elements, and a good deal more, go into “The Cold Cold Ground,” by Adrian McKinty. The book kicks off a series featuring detective Sean Duffy, a Catholic cop working in Carrickfergus, not far from Belfast. Duffy and a small cast of cops — peelers, I should say, in the book’s lingo — are tasked with solving some bizarre killings, in which hands are chopped from victims and then traded between the corpses, and sheets of music are shoved where music was never intended to go. There is a disappearance, and an apparent suicide, that may or may not be related.
It is a strange set of circumstances, the kind of thing that would keep McBain’s weary cops busy for a whole novel. But Duffy and company don’t work in McBain’s fictional big, bad city. They work in Ireland during The Troubles. They have to check their vehicles for makeshift bombs every time they drive somewhere. They have to don riot gear just to go ask questions in certain areas. They interrogate suspects who are better armed and organized than the police in many cases. They dodge bricks and bottles headed back to their vehicle, which can make checking for a car bomb rather difficult.
This is what made “The Cold Cold Ground” so fascinating for me. Even with the routine sounds of military helicopters, explosions and gun shots, even with nights lit by fires, life goes on. The milkman delivers each morning. The pretty neighbor next door flirts with the good-looking cop and not-so-subtly reminds him her husband is away. Potential relationships are endangered by one-night-stands. People gather in pubs and coffee shops. And cops have to go out and figure out who is killing people and chopping their hands off.
Another key difference between this police porcedural novel and the McBain books is the narrative. Sean Duffy narrates his own adventure here, in the tradition of hard-boiled detectives everywhere. I mentioned Parker earlier, but I could have mentioned Chandler or Block or others. The comparison is, perhaps, not quite fair; Duffy strikes me as more introspective than the norm for a first-person detective novel narrator, and while he has a keen wit and a sharp sense of humor, he seldom seems to be a smart-ass just for the sake of being a smart-ass.
Given the politics and factional rivalries involved, the book even delves into spy novel territory a bit before it wraps up its core mysteries. It also leaves the reader wanting more, as Duffy wonders just whose attentions he has drawn and just whose toes he may have stepped on. It is a great start to a series, and I look forward to reading on and seeing where it all goes. I have several Duffy novels to catch up on.