The Cold, Cold Ground (Sean Duffy 1) by Adrian McKinty

the cold cold groundUnlicensed to kill…

🙂 🙂 🙂

It’s May 1981, and Northern Ireland is on the brink of a complete breakdown of law and order, possibly even civil war. IRA prisoners in the Maze are on hunger strike, and when the first one dies the streets erupt in violent riots. In the midst of this mayhem, a man is found dead with his hand cut off. At first the police assume the victim was an informer, punished by one or other of the bunches of murderous nutters who held sway in NI at that time. However, when a second body is found, it appears that these killings may be nothing to do with the unrest – it looks like Northern Ireland might have its first serial killer, targeting gay men. It’s up to Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy and his team to catch him before he kills again…

The book starts out well. McKinty has a great writing style and paints an authentic seeming picture of NI at the height of the Troubles. The book is told in the first-person past-tense from Duffy’s viewpoint and he gives a good insight into the various divisions and factions that ruled the streets in those days. He also shows how socially conservative this small part of the world still was, even more than mainland Britain. The book touches not only on the victimisation of homosexuals but on the question of unmarried motherhood – shown as a thing so shameful that women would attempt to hide pregnancies, abandon their babies, or even, in some cases, commit suicide.

Duffy and his team are all likeable characters, and the interactions between them provide some humour which prevents the story from becoming too bleak. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was, of course, a major target for the IRA and Catholic officers in particular were seen as traitors, selling out for English gold. McKinty shows Duffy as a Catholic who, like the vast majority, wants peace and in his case is prepared to put himself at risk to be part of achieving it, as many did in real life, too.

begorrathon 2016

So there are many good things about the book. Unfortunately, however, credibility begins to nose-dive early on and eventually crashes into the set of a second-rate Bond pastiche. First off, a Catholic police officer is ridiculously unlikely to have bought a house in a Protestant stronghold at that time, unless he really had a death wish. The idea of him having a police issue sub-machine gun lying about on his hall table for weeks (just so’s it’d be handy when the plot required it) is ludicrous. That Willie Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, would ever have phoned a low-ranking police officer on behalf of MI5 is laughable. Et cetera, et cetera. And the ending, which obviously I can’t discuss, is like something out of a low-budget Bruce Willis rip-off.

I think part of the problem is that McKinty, who lives in America, may be aiming for that market, and using words like “gasoline” instead of “petrol” reinforced that feeling. The more ridiculous the plot became, the less authentic the rest of the book felt to me. The quality of the research in the earlier part of the book means that I feel it must have been a deliberate choice rather than lack of knowledge for McKinty to veer so far beyond the credibility line as the book progressed – I suspect the words “movie deal” may have been on his to-do list.

Adrian McKinty
Adrian McKinty

A couple of final, brief criticisms. It’d be great if just once he could introduce a female character without immediately assessing her sexual attractiveness and/or willingness. I know that’s a noir tradition, but, you know, traditions don’t have to be followed slavishly once they become outdated. And, as with so much modern crime, the book is way too long for its content – there’s about a hundred pages in the middle that could have been cut with no loss.

Hard to rate – I found the first half very enjoyable, which made my disappointment with the long dip in the middle followed by the implausibility of the rest greater than it would otherwise have been. It works reasonably well as a slow thriller, but doesn’t live up to its early promise of giving a realistic picture of the difficulties of policing Northern Ireland in the midst of the Troubles.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

This post is part of Reading Ireland Month 2016 – #begorrathon16 – being jointly hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff.

60 thoughts on “The Cold, Cold Ground (Sean Duffy 1) by Adrian McKinty

  1. A sub-maching gun! That’s sorta neatio. I just read a Jack Reacher book and he got a sub-machine gun at the end. Shot single, triple burst, or full auto. You can get me one of those for Christmas, if you like. Plus two more katanas.

    Don’t you think he looks a bit like Gerald Butler?

    • Oh, if you like Jack Reacher, you might actually like this – you’d like all the bits I hated, I expect! I’d love to get you some massive weapons for Christmas – I feel they really sum up the whole spirit of the holiday, don’t you? *chuckles wickedly* But unfortunately by the time I’ve packed all the books there won’t be room in the crate…

      Who’s… hold on… *googles*… oooh! *swoons* No, I don’t! *goes back to google*

      • *laughs* It’s sorta funny, but you’re right. I bet I might like the bits you did, too. Maybe. If they’re suitable. One never knows what FEF gets up to, see. Oh, I know you’d love to have a sub-machine gun. Just think the fun you could have with one! Books. Hmm. You can only give me one!

        Haha. He’s Scottish, too, you know. Half way cool.

        • Nah, you’d probably find the bits I liked boring! There are many times when I feel I could put a sub-machine gun to good use *murderous scowl* – that’s why I’m glad I don’t have one! Which one? The Complete Works of Dickens??

          Ah, that explains why he’s soooo… *goes for an ice-lolly*

            • Bet I could! I’ll have you know I regularly used to win prizes for shooting the ducks in fairgrounds! Dead-Eye FEF, that’s me! That’s why they banned guns in Scotland – everyone else was so jealous of my skill… *twirls six-gun and holsters it* It does! Aren’t you glad?

              *laughs too* Thank you, I think!

            • Fairground ducks, not real ones! Don’t you have them? Shooting galleries at fairs? No, I expect you’re not – not enough swearing in it for Professorial tastes!

            • *nods* The guns are usually rigged to not aim true. You have to get the feel of the weapon – the weight distribution etc – so that you can compensate your aim to take account of the gun’s idiosyncracies… *stands back in case the Professor swoons* (As well as being a boxer, my Dad learned to use rifles in WW2… *laughs*)

  2. Apparently he lives in Australia, I remember his publicist telling me (when I asked why he was only doing Harrogate) but yes, I agree with you about living in the Protestant scheme. Why would you do that when you don’t even have to? And I’m thinking about the average Catholic, never mind an TIC officer!

    • Ah – well, even less excuse for using Americanisms then! Buying a house there and prancing about the street in full uniform was just silly, as was the whole machine gun thing. Pity, because he’s a good writer and could have written a much better book if he’d just stayed within the bounds of credibility. Haha! I must admit, I was wondering what TIC stood for… 🙂

  3. Sorry to hear that this wasn’t a real winner for you, FictionFan. Interesting point about the female characters, too. I do think the novel depicts the Troubles effectively, and as you say, Dufffy and his teammates are likeable characters. But credibility really does matter in a book…

    • Yes, that old credibility thing did for me again, I’m afraid! Which was a pity, because I felt he had the talent to write a good book without going all Die Hard at the end. Ah, well!

  4. Another one I don’t have to read, thanks to your frank review! Thanks for the heads-up. You’re right, you know. Those middles are beasts to write, and it’s so easy to babble on and on, trying to fill up the word count. But, hey, at least the beginning was good, right?!!

    • It’s working to a word count that’s the problem, I think. I guess publishers must insist on that? I enjoy long books if there’s enough plot to justify the length. But I’d rather read a short book than one that meanders in the middle. Ha! Yes, the first half was very good – and, to be fair, loads of people liked the whole thing. You know me and that old credibility thing… 😉

  5. Not sure about a sub-machine gun on the hall table…I keep mine by the couch…joking aside, it one for me. Sounds like a bit of a shame given it started so well.

    • Haha! Mine’s under the pillow… It was a pity, because I really enjoyed it till it all started getting too silly to be believable. But then, loads of people loved it – as always, it comes down to personal taste in the end… 🙂

    • I do feel a bit guilty, because loads of people have really enjoyed this one, but I always have a problem with books that go so far over the credibility line. So don’t let me put you off completely… 😉

  6. How lovely. One to happily avoid. Now I thought a sub machine gun might be the baguette hidden beneath the machine gun, for easy retrieval in the middle of the night. Or if the burglar you heard turned out to be a cat you could throw the baguette at the cat. I think a water pistol is more my kind of thing. In which case the baguette should not be sub water pistol as there is little worse than a soggy baguette

    • Personally I think a meatball sub is probably more lethal than a machine gun. I know as a veggie you’ll never have sampled that delight, and I must inform you of how lucky you are! You’ve given me a thought though – perhaps I should keep one handy to throw at the marauding cat who pops in the catflap and steals the cats’ din-dins… that’d sort it!

  7. It does seem a bit odd that he was so credible at the start but then lost it all. Wouldn’t he have done better on the film deal front if he’d have kept to the credibility angle but used his writers imagination to make it just as exciting?

    • I agree – I felt the mismatch between the first and second halfs would make a film deal unlikely. It would probably have worked better if he’d not made his main protagonist a police officer and had him all the way through as a kind of maverick hero – or an undercover spy or something.

    • I think I did way back in the Dark Ages when I was voraciously reading my way through all the classics, but what little I remember about it now is based more on the recent adaptation than the book. My feeling is that I thought it would have been good, but was really too unfinished to be properly enjoyable… sometimes unfinished just means not fully edited, but in this case, if memory serves me right, the story just stops without us ever finding out what Dickens planned for the ending. Why? Are you thinking of reading it?

      • Harry was out for the evening last night and I went eeny meeny…and the movie caught my eye. It was a two part thing. The first part was hard for me to figure out what was going on. So I looked it up and that was when I found a lot of more info. And that was when I realized that there was opium in the mix. I don’t blame Dickens, but he should have put a clause in his will about throwing out unfinished manuscripts.

        • Was that the BBC adaptation? I think I gave up on it halfway through. I kinda wish people wouldn’t finish unfinished books posthumously – they almost never work, I think. Especially with somebody like Dickens who frequently changed the ending halfway through writing the book…

  8. How often were female characters introduced and had their sexual attractiveness immediattely assessed in this novel? I don’t generally read these types of books, and am surprised that it’s common practice!

    I appreciate the honest review. But, unfortunately I have little interest in reading a book about the victimization of homosexual and unmarried mothers! 😡

  9. What a great review and once again your feelings chime with mine. I know loads of people love this series but it did leave me a bit ‘cold’ because of the second half and I’m a fan of books that are set in Ireland during The Troubles!

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, I read the second in the trilogy a few years ago (back to front as usual) and hit exactly the same problems with it. It’s a pity, because he is a good writer, but he really should decide whether he’s writing realistic police procedurals or James Bond-style thrillers…

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