It’s a paradox of the author-reader relationship that some writers can so often—and so well—please a reader as to create a higher bar for themselves. The reader will still buy everything the author produces, but his standards for enjoyment may be higher than for a less-appreciated writer. I confess to being like that with Dennis Lehane. Live By Night got reviews about as good as The Given Day, but, to me, the fact it was even a notch below was a disappointment.
Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series has entered that same rarified air. My expectations for Gun Street Girl, based on the previous Duffy books, were as high as for any book I’ve read in the past year. The difference is, there was not a jot of disappointment in Gun Street Girl; McKinty met even my inflated expectations.
The Duffy series has entered a realm where it is difficult to know which events are integrated historical facts, and which are purely fictional; he’s the Irish James Ellroy, with a less brutal style. Duffy isn’t a traditional here, nor is he bent the way so many of Ellroy’s characters are. He’s also not an anti-hero. He’s a man in a difficult, possibly untenable position: a Catholic cop in Protestant Northern Ireland during the peak of the Troubles. Scorned by many for being Catholic, he’s a member of what may be the most universally reviled organization in Northern Ireland: the Royal Ulster Constabulary. His fellow Catholics consider him a traitor because he’s a cop, and many of his peers on the police force—on whom he depends to have his back—distrust him because he’s Catholic. Now MI5 is recruiting him to work with informants, a prospect against even Sean recoils. He’s a cop, and cops depend on informants, but he’s also Irish, with a distaste for those who would inform on their peers as a violation of the Irish First Commandment: Whatever you say, say nothing.
As before, the case Duffy must solve is formidable enough, but it serves mostly as a frame on which to hang a description of everyday existence during the Troubles, as Duffy must navigate a barren personal life along with the workaday accommodations required of a member of the RUC, such as never starting the car without checking for bombs. His work is unfulfilling on many levels, but it’s all he has. Duffy is not defeated—he still hopes for more—never really expects it. He has his own code, his own compromises and sacrifices he’s willing to make, understanding more as time goes on his true loyalty must be to those who have come to accept him and will protect him with the same vigor he extends for them.
I’ve read all four of the Duffy novels, in sequence. It’s hard to say which is my favorite. The Cold, Cold Ground had the greatest impact on me, through its introduction to such a foreign world, but that could well have been the case no matter where I began; they’re all that good. Starting from the beginning does allow one to see Duffy’s life and attitude evolve as events take their toll, but he’s a fascinating character no matter where you pick him up. So pick him up. You’ll be fascinated and educated all at once.
I have heard it said those who read fiction have a more highly developed sense of empathy for having viewed so many of life’s trials through the eyes of others. Never has this been truer than when viewing life as Sean Duffy sees it.