“I’ve stirred up something strange, something deep.”
Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, the sixth entry in the Sean Duffy series from author Adrian McKinty bears an unwieldy title, but don’t let that stand in the way of picking up this well-crafted crime novel. Set in 1988, during The Troubles, this latest book from the consistently reliable McKinty, is an explosive police procedural set against the violence of the times.
Detective Inspector Sean Duffy, now in middle-age, a father with a live-in girlfriend wonders just how long his career will last. On one hand he’s a Catholic officer in the almost entirely protestant Carrickfergus RUC–that means as a catholic officer, there’s a IRA bounty on his head, and due to his past decisions, he knows he’ll never be promoted. In this novel, Duffy’s old habits, combined with the endless stress of the job find him out-of-shape and struggling with asthma. Can he give up the smokes, the booze and the other recreational habits he’s acquired in order to cope with his efforts to stay alive, solve cases and maintain some degree of integrity?
The novel’s powerful opening finds Duffy marched off by masked men (and one woman) to a remote area to dig his own grave, and then the novel backtracks to the incidents that led Sean to this point. Backtracking from a moment of great tension is a risky venture for some novelists (my next review will cover that topic) but in McKinty’s capable hands, the action, with just a touch of humour, never stops, and as a result, the intense page-turning backstory maintains momentum.
Duffy is called to investigate a murder–the weapon of choice in this case is a crossbow, and the victim was a lowly drug dealer. There’s pressure from above to close the case, and Duffy is told in no uncertain words to ‘move on.’ When Duffy keeps digging, bad things begin to happen, and Duffy along with two trusted members of the force: Crabbie and Lawson in effect, lead a secret investigation that tunnels back to the past.
Series novels always include details about the characters’ personal lives. In this novel, Duffy, now a father, has deeper concerns than he’s had in the past. Plus Duffy’s live-in Protestant girlfriend isn’t happy living in a Catholic neighborhood and she isn’t sure she wants to raise a child in Northern Ireland. Duffy juggles pressures from his superiors with domestic strife and very real threats to his life. Plus thanks to health issues, he may be tagged as unfit for duty.
Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly is possibly the best entry in the series so far. Once again, McKinty places us squarely in the murky times by dropping in mention of real events: the Gibraltar terrorism, and the murder of two British army corporals. Curious, I looked up the RUC on Wikipedia and the article states that “at its peak” the force had 8500 officers and that “during the Troubles 319 RUC officers were killed and 9,000 injured in paramilitary assassinations or attacks.”
It would be fairly predictable to place a character in these times and show how things are never black and white, but McKinty does something entirely different. The Sean Duffy novels at all about identity and primary loyalties. In Duffy’s case, he’s a Catholic from working class roots, but he is not an ideologue; he’s first and foremost a policeman who is going to get the job done. Now if he rubs up against Catholics, Protestants or the wealthy along the way to solving his case, these labels are all white noise to Duffy. Being primarily a policeman has carried Duffy so far but now he’s a father and these two labels: father and policeman have their own magnetic pulls.
As I said, this is the sixth in the series, and while some brief references to the past are dropped in the plot, you can jump in with Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly--although it’s better to start at the beginning in order to follow Duffy’s career trajectory. The end of the novel finds Duffy at an interesting place in his career, and now I’m really looking forward to seeing how this plays out.