Saturday, 22 February 2014

Adrian McKinty; the Sean Duffy trilogy

I can’t figure Adrian McKinty out. I don’t know whether he’s a good writer who doesn’t do enough redrafts or a bad writer with ideas above his talents. I don’t know if he’s writing thrillers which happen to have grounded characters, or trying to write reflective books about Nordor which happen to have thriller elements. Perhaps most annoyingly, Nordor being what it is, I can’t figure out which side of the divide he’s writing from, which frustrates the bit of me which would like to mark him out of ten for his ability to imagine the other side. 

It didn’t bother me hugely when I was reading his Michael Forsythe books but the Sean Duffy ones are solidly dug into the notion of a North Antrim Catholic working for the RUC in the early eighties. That’s not quite up there with a story about a black Klansman, but it’s not something where you can lash into it on the “write what you know” principle. 

Well, whichever bit of it he had to do from outside his own direct experience, I never found myself saying hang on, that’s just not how it works. McKinty gets his made up characters right. The bigger picture and the quality of the writing don’t always live up to the characters, but I rushed through all three books in a couple of weeks, curious about what Duffy was going to do next to ruin his own life.

For me, the good bit of all three books is the sense of Duffy as a cop who’s smart without being actually all that good at being a cop. He’s like the anti Dirty Harry; smart, violent, insubordinate, but he doesn’t get results. And it’s not being played for laughs; he’s just stuck in a system where smart isn’t enough, and everyone is too connected for anyone to be brought to book. Even when he figures out whodunnit, he can’t figure out whattodoaboutit.

The bad bits; the body count’s ridiculous. There are too many scenes of utter mayhem in the books, gunfire and body parts all around and Duffy just about making it out of the fiasco intact. The first book climaxes with him taking down an entire loyalist hit-squad, and it’s ridiculous coming on the heels of the more grounded mooching around the scene of the crime which has led up to it. The other not-great bit is the way McKinty navigates the real world. He’s chosen to put all three books into the frame of real problems of the 1980s; the first blends the Hunger Strikes and the rise of moles within the Army Council (there’s a waaaaffffffer-thin pastiche of Stakeknife which feels like it was lawyered to the point of unreadability); the second hovers around the edges of the DeLorean Motor Company, and the third - which is mostly a locked room mystery - is bookended at one side with the Maze mass breakout and the other with the Brighton Hotel Bombing. Real world means real people, and McKinty doesn’t do as well with the real people as he does with his own characters. 

Equally, the exposition about what’s going on in the real world can get pretty clunky; Duffy breaks the hell out of the fourth wall explaining what’s happening around him and who was doing what and when. It’s at its most noticeable in the first book, and I found myself wishing that he’d been able to find a way to drag the details in more unobtrusively; every time Duffy throws a footnote into the middle of a sentence, it kicks you out of the book you wanted to read, and into a piece of bad journalism. And it’s not that McKinty can’t do subtle; his portrait of early eighties Carrickfergus - where he grew up (and thus either grew up super-confident or very damned scared) - catches the feel of Nordor, the grey moral compromise of a place damned by the impossibility of practical compromise.

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