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The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian Mckinty

November 29, 2014


This book opens with an epigraph from one of my favorite songs, “Cold, Cold Ground,” by Tom Waits. What follows is a fairly standard, though enjoyable noir murder mystery. The backdrop is a historically precise Belfast, Ireland during the 1981 hunger strikes in which ten prisoners from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) sacrificed themselves. Ireland is chaos, with nightly rioting, frequent bombings and the constant threat of sectarian violence.

Within this context, a serial killer investigation: two murder victims, both gay men, found in separate locations with their right hands severed (a common punishment for informants). Only the hands are mis-matched—each hand placed with the other’s body. Enter our detective, Sean Duffy. A lover of music and literature and a Catholic—in Protestant Northern Ireland, a cause for instant distrust.

This has all the hallmarks of great noir fiction. The characters are well-drawn and pockmarked—our protagonist with enough innocence, inexperience and wild desperation to keep us on our toes. The plot is dark and twisting and fast-paced. And the setting of Northern Ireland with all its political turmoil, plus the overlay of gay rights (homosexuality was a criminal offense in Ireland at the time) provide for plenty of levers that ratchet up the tension.

The only thing that kept me from loving this book was that much of the politics was over my head. I had very little previous knowledge of the politics of the time, so other than a vague recognition of some of the names—IRA, Sinn Féin, “the Maze”—I wasn’t equipped to fully understand the tangle of relevant interests. And understanding the ins and outs as the protagonist unravels the plot is critical to enjoying noir fiction. That said, even with a cursory understanding, this is a pretty fun detective book.

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