Siren by Annemarie Neary

A soggy sandwich with a great filling…

🙂 🙂 😐

Twenty years ago, Róisín Burns had to flee her home in Northern Ireland after getting caught up in the Troubles. Now the IRA man she fled from, Lonergan, has reinvented himself as a politician, and Róisín has returned to take revenge, sort of. Or something.

This is another of the ubiquitous trend for books set part in the past and part in the present and, like so many of them, one part is much stronger than the other. The past section is set at the height of the Troubles, and Neary gives a convincing picture of a young girl trapped into doing the IRA’s bidding in a city where fear is a constant presence. The present is a silly thriller with absolutely no credibility whatsoever and drags interminably. In fact, had I not been reading this for Reading Ireland month, I would undoubtedly have abandoned it before I even got to the past, since it takes almost a third of the book to get there, apart from the brief prologue.

Róisín, now known as Sheen, has turned up on Lamb Island off the coast of Northern Ireland, where Lonergan now has a cottage. Sheen rents a little cottage too, isolated of course, just up the road from the resident nutter whom everyone assumes murdered the previous woman tenant. They don’t bother to tell Sheen this though, contenting themselves with warning the nutter, Boyle, to behave himself. He doesn’t. But he’s not the only bad man on the island – for such a small population it seems to attract more than its fair share of men willing to bump off lone women, for personal as well as political reasons. We spend an inordinate amount of time inside Boyle’s foul-mouthed and lustful head – ugh! (Constantly using “fucken” instead of “fucking” really doesn’t make it cute, by the way, especially when there’s no other attempt to reproduce Irish speech or accent.) Tedious in the extreme.

Then we go back to Belfast to what seems like the mid-’70s, though we’re not told exactly. The Troubles are at their height, with frequent beatings and bombings directed at both British soldiers and civilians fairly indiscriminately. This section feels almost as if it’s written by a different author. The city and its people are recreated with a real feeling of authenticity, and Neary raises a lot of intriguing questions about where moral responsibility begins and ends in a situation where the norms have disappeared and law and order have almost completely broken down. At first Róisín is tricked into helping the IRA, but after that she has to make choices – pay the consequences or continue down the path of terrorism, this time knowingly. Neary shows how grey that question becomes in a sharply divided society, where informers on either side are at extreme risk. She also touches on the question of how far the crimes of the past must be forgotten or forgiven in the pursuit of peace.

Annemarie Neary

And then sadly back to Lamb Island for a ridiculous thriller ending. The idea is ludicrous that a middle-aged woman with no combat experience or training would decide to take on members of the IRA whom she knows have no compunction about killing. And so unnecessary, since if Róisín simply wanted to destroy Lonergan, she could have sent an email to the police or the newspapers from the safety of her American home. But instead she comes back to Ireland to face Lonergan herself, to… I’m not really sure what… threaten him? Shame him? Neither tactic likely to work on an IRA terrorist, I’d have thought. And then it gets even sillier…

So a mixed bag. If Neary had stuck to telling the real story – the one in the past – this could have been an excellent book. Instead it’s like a sandwich with a great filling, but slapped between two thick pieces of soggy and underbaked bread. Maybe it’s time for authors to start telling one story again, instead of feeling obliged to stick in an extra timeline and a thriller ending – as all trends do, this one has seriously lost its novelty value. Sadly I see her new book follows the same double timeline format, so I think I’ll pass on that one.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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

the cold cold groundUnlicensed to kill…

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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.

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

I Hear the Sirens in the Street (Sean Duffy 2) by Adrian McKinty

i hear the sirens in the streetA good read but some credibility issues…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

This police procedural/thriller is based in 1980s Northern Ireland during the Troubles. When a torso is found in a suitcase, Detective Inspector Sean Duffy has to identify the victim before he can start to work out why he was murdered. The storyline allows the author to look at the divides in NI society and also at US attitudes to the Irish question. The author writes flowingly and the plot is interesting and complicated enough to keep the reader’s interest, though I found it dipped a bit in the middle. Duffy and his colleagues Crabbie and Matty are on the whole likeable characters and their interactions allow for a fair amount of humour amongst the more serious stuff. The book is undoubtedly a page-turner.

Adrian McKinty
Adrian McKinty

However, right from the point at the very beginning where Duffy decides to overlook a security guard firing a shotgun at him because the guard ‘was an old geezer with watery eyes’, I found that the book had serious credibility issues that made it hard for me to believe in these characters or to be convinced that this was an accurate portrayal of NI and the Royal Ulster Constabulary of the time. Duffy is a Catholic working in the mainly Protestant RUC and living in a Protestant community – by choice, apparently. He spends half his time with his .38 stuffed in his belt as if he is in the Wild West rather than the police force. Sometimes he’s preaching about the need for constant caution, such as checking for car bombs each time he gets into a car; then at other times he’s taking ridiculous and unnecessary risks for no reason that I could see except to let the author move the story along. Then, of course, there are the women – he sees every woman he meets as a potential sex object and that’s about as far as their characterisation goes.

A difficult one to rate since, so long as I was able to suspend my disbelief, I did enjoy reading it and will probably try another of the author’s books in the future – so, on that basis, I’m giving this one 3.5 stars and recommending it as a reasonably good read.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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