A Detective Sean Duffy Novel
(Seventh Street Books)
Adrian McKinty's style is designed to drive you mad in its first 100 pages or so by the glomming onto an oddity in a case that could be a suicide or a murder . . . and not letting that clue go. He comes back to it again and again, like a dog on a bone, rattling back and forth with it until you think this Sean Duffy is more or less daffy and we want to call him up and tell him to stop it.
The body belongs --- or belonged --- to the lovely reporter, Miss Lily Bigelow, who had journeyed to Belfast as reporter with a gaggle of business people from Finland looking for a site for a computer manufacturing plant. And the night of the first day of their visit she apparently jumped (or was or pushed) from the upper level of the gloomy eight-hundred-year old castle there at the edge of Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland.
This all takes place in 1987 in the declining years of what the English so scenically called "The Troubles." They always give funny names to their problems. For instance, when the Thames got overloaded with crap in about 1860 or so, it stunk up the Houses of Parliament, so they named it "The Great Stink."
Anyway, the bit that rattles Duffy is that when Bigelow fell (or jumped), her shoes were all wrong. His logic is that if she were to jump, she'd either take off her shoes but, if, being a careful and respectable lady (she was a reporter for the Financial Times), she was the one that put them on, she'd hardly be putting her right shoe on the left foot, and vice versa. He may have a point.
Duffy is right to be suspicious. Of everything. His fellow officers. His neighbors, People loitering around his house, or the station. His car. Which is referred to as a "Beemer" and which has to be checked each time he wants to get in and drive somewhere. You have to get down on your knees to look for the gift of the IRA to police types. It's referred to as a "mercury tilt switch bomb."
This is McKinty's fifth novel with Sean Duffy as star, so we get to be with the two of them for a few days, and I don't think we can ask for a better companions. McKinty is a writer's writer and his Sean Duffy is no cold fish, although like everyone in Ireland he drinks too much tea, eats too much bad food, always worries about bombs and is, as they say in England, a bit daft. At home, he listens to Steven Reich, of all people, as well as that mordant 19th Century brooder, Anton Bruckner. He knows how to play the exotic Japanese game of Go, and under some greasy rags, has hidden in his garage dynamite Moroccan hash "which brave smugglers risked life and limb to bring in from Marrakech only to have it taken from them by the customs, or the paramilitaries, or me."
What starts out as simple murder blows up into something else entirely. Not only is one of Duffy's friends, Inspector McBain, done in by a mercury tilt switch bomb, but it turns out that Ms. Bigelow was on to another hot news story, certainly more interesting than tailing some rich Finns who might construct a computer factory in County Antrim. "500 jobs," they say, as if that will make the problems of the area disappear.
§ § §
Ms Bigelow had gotten a tip, and was involved in revealing a scandal about a certain famous English radio and television star, Jimmy Savile. For those of us outside the land of umbrellas, warm bitter, and even more bad food, Mr. Savile was an eccentric staple of the BBC, with a program "Top of the Pops." During the course of his long life, through this, and his eccentric fame, he was able to raise almost forty million pounds for various charities. It was only after his death in 2011 that he became known for being, according to Wikipedia, "an almost prolific predatory sex offender."
In the course of Rain Dogs, and in one of the funniest scenes in the book, we get to meet the white-haired, cigar smoking, foul-mouthed Savile in person, living in a filthy "caravan" (English: camper), there next to Broadmoor Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Berkshire.
On the walls of the caravan are photographs of Savile with "Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, Charles Haughey and Pope John Paul II." Savile reluctantly invites in the three investigators, and makes them tea "with one tea bag" --- this being almost a capital offense in any of the British Isles.
Duffy looks around: "Filthy curtains, a fold-out bed, a muck-encrusted range," and dozens of these signed photographs, but when the detective questions him concerning alleged abuses at the Young Offenders Institute, Savile gets quite huffy, says, "Don't take that tone with me, young man. You know where I spent Christmas . . . Chequers! All right? Carol, Dennis, Mark, Maggie and me. Right? I don't expect to be troubled again, about this or anything else, or you'll be getting a bloody call."
Chequers, for those of us not a part of the commonwealth, is the private retreat of the Prime Minister of the UK. Maggie is Margaret Thatcher, the PM at the time, Carol her daughter, Mark her son, Denis her husband.
After Savile kicks them out and rushes off the hospital, Sean asks the others what they think, and the ever inoffensive Detective Lawson says, "He's a bit different with the cameras off, isn't he." He goes on:
He's a bit of a . . . "
"Fuckface?" I suggested.
"Or words to that effect."
"He didn't seem particularly worried about the allegations," McCrabban said.
"No. He didn't."
§ § §
When I read a review of a novel like this one, I always want to know whether it is worth my time. Should I waste two hours of my endless time on this or any other murder mystery?
My take on Rain Dogs? Plot: great. Writing: terrific. Characters: out of this world. You want to take a jet to Belfast just to see the world as Duffy sees it. The rain, the sky, the people, the ancient castles. Or . . . maybe . . . to follow the Carrickfergus police around, offer them a few pints, just to see what it's like to work with the pecksmiths and thieves, the hustlers, the RUC, the politicos . . . to even meet Muhammad Ali (Duffy is assigned to protect him during his visit to Belfast in 1987).
And, most of all, to get to enjoy the back and forth with some of the cases that drift around in these pages. Like the gypsy car thief, Killian, and this witty back-and-forth. Duffy:
Downstairs to the cells. The little shit was not so little. Six-footer. Ginger bap, sleekit look to him, but not unintelligent. Killian, he called himself. He spoke Irish better than English so we conversed in both languages.
"You were stopped in a stolen car, Killian, not for the first time," I said.
"I was given that car in exchange for a horse, I wasn't to know it was stolen," he said.
"And the other eighteen times you've been charged with car theft?"
"Eighteen times charged, but only one conviction."
"And for that you got two months in an English borstal," I said.
"Which I escaped from the second night I was there."
"Did you? That wasn't in the file."
"No, they were probably too embarrassed to put it in the file. But it's true enough. You can check into it."
"I believe you," I said. I passed him over my cigarettes and lighter. He lit himself a cig, expertly palmed four others, and passed the box and lighter back."
I sighed. "What are we going to do with you, Killian?
"You can't hold me. Social Services are going to put me in the place called Kinkaid. Heard of it?"
"Easiest nick in Ireland to get out of. You just walk thorough the gate. I'll escape from there, steal a car, and be back with my Pavee by tomorrow."
Duffy offers to throw the book at him, and Killian says that that seems overkill.
"You don't seem the disproportionate-response type," Killian said, blowing a smoke ring toward the ceiling.
"You speak Irish and you're Catholic. I'd say that you've had your fair degree of shite from the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] and are probably on the side of the underdog, which, in this analogy, would be me."
I bit down a grin and thought about it. Not a completely unlikeable kid. "You now, is minic a gheibhean beal oscailt diog dunta," I said, which made him laugh.
Duffy offers to let him go, but, "could you at least promise me not to steal any more cars in my jurisdiction?"
He stubbed out his cigarette, stood up, and offered me his hand.
"On my solemn word of honor," he said. "We're going over to England next week anyway and we'll probably be there for a bit."
He shook my hand and then Sergeant McCrabban's hand. I made him give Sergeant McCrabban his watch back and we let him go with a caution.
McCrabban later asks about the saying, "is minic a gheibhean beal oscailt diog dunta." Duffy explains, "It means "an open mouth often invites a closed fist."
§ § §
The final hook for me in Rain Dogs was what we always call "the throw-aways," touches that may be frills, but light up the way to the inevitable conclusion.
- Women in Ireland who need an abortion have to get out of town. Like the legislators in Topeka, the men who run Ulster have staked their ownership of every woman's private parts: no abortions allowed. So the poor unfortunate women have take take them on the overnight ferry all the way to Liverpool, to get a D&C.
- Duffy makes an investigative trip to Oulu, Finland. Didn't like it. He claims it was a pilgrimage more awful than Apsley Cherry-Garrrard's The Worst Journey in the World.
- There are reasons not to trust rectal temperatures taken on a corpse that has been dead for several hours. We get to spend a couple of pages here with Dr Beggs, the county pathologist who has an elaborate theory on all the variables, mostly in the "linear part of the sigmoid cooling curve."
- There is some speculation here about the murmuration of starlings, how a flock will move in exact synchronicity with each other, a theory that also may apply to the works of criminal detectives.
- And pregnant women? "Never argue with a pregnant woman," says Duffy, with his ex-love, there in Liverpool. Then,
- "Never argue with a pregnant woman about to become an ex-pregnant woman." He dubs it "an ontological and metaphysical disaster area."
- And the explanation for the title of this whole opus? Since I won't put up with any music composed after Antonio Caldera (c.1670-1736), I had to consult the Googlean oracle. It told me that "Rain Dogs" is an ancient ditty (1984) recorded by someone named Tom Waits --- related, I suppose, to the same Wait found in your typical lowlife bar like mine, the Bar None: "Our credit manager is named Helen Wait. For credit you should go to Helen Wait."
- Whoever he may be, Tom Wait(s) wrote "Rain Dogs," which is said to have to do with "the urban dispossessed" of New York City.
- Now that's something I can dig. As does, I guess, my this week's new favorite author, Adrian McKinty.
- Do people still say "dig?"--- Pamela Wylie