It’s been a long time since I’ve awaited a book as expectantly as Adrian McKinty’s In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, the third (and hopefully not final) book in his series of 1980s Northern Ireland-set thrillers, featuring RUC detective Sean Duffy. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been an admirer of McKinty’s writing for some time, and I’m pleased to say that his latest book maintains the high standard set by its predecessors. In it, Duffy finds himself approached by MI5, eager for his assistance in tracking down schoolfriend turned IRA bomb-maker Dermot McCann, recently escaped from the Maze prison.
Duffy accepts the assignment because it temporarily reverses the demotion he suffered at the end of the previous book, I Hear the Sirens in the Street. At the start of In the Morning… Duffy remains a plain sergeant, leading patrols through the more hostile parts of Ulster and manning lonely dawn checkpoints. McKinty is very good at evoking the twin feelings of boredom and uneasiness felt in these situations. ‘We were nearing the end of the foot patrol, which as any peeler or squaddie will tell you is the most sickening part of the business… to be shot within sight of home would be very irritating.‘
Duffy’s dry humour is an ever-present -and very welcome – part of the books, leavening a very dark portrait of a society at war with itself. As in the previous books, Duffy continues to be an engaging narrator; when we first meet him he is, by his own admission, ‘high as Skylab, baked on Turkish black cannabis resin that I’d cooked myself.‘ Not what you might expect from a member of Her Majesty’s Royal Ulster Constabulary – but Duffy’s outsider status endears him to the reader. It also makes him a more effective investigator, as he moves between all levels of Northern Ireland society – from the ‘unpoliceable’ estates around Derry through to Belfast’s Michelin-starred restaurants.
As his search for McCann continues, McKinty neatly uses it to frame a second, more self-contained narrative – namely, the investigation of an old locked room (or, more accurately, locked pub) mystery, where a young woman seemingly fell from the bar whilst changing a lightbulb and broke her neck. Her mother remains unconvinced by the official verdict; she offers Duffy information on McCann’s whereabouts, in exchange for his agreement to revisit the case.
This part of the novel is pleasingly self-aware, with regular references to similar fictional puzzles from the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and John Dickson Carr. But McKinty is also careful to play the narrative absolutely straight, ensuring it forms a coherent and relevant part of the wider story, rather than feeling separate and artificial. He is clearly a writer with some admiration for the genre, and a depth of knowledge about what is and is not appropriate. The solution, when it comes, is both neat and irritatingly obvious, and like me you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t work it out sooner.
Having solved this mystery, McKinty then steers the novel back to the main thread of the story. The climactic search for Dermot McCann is genuinely exciting, and whilst you may think you are several steps ahead of Duffy in knowing what is coming next, there are still some thrilling surprises held in reserve. This is also the first time that the shadowy presence of McCann, a background figure for the majority of the book, steps forward into the light. The resolution when it comes is satisfying, but in a world as morally complex as this McKinty is also careful not to be too neat.
In an intriguing, quieter coda to the book, there is a look ahead towards the long-term political future of Northern Ireland. This both resolves the trilogy in some ways, but also leaves the door open for further Duffy novels. I certainly hope McKinty will return to this character, if not immediately then perhaps in later books. Like the best crime fiction, the series opened the door on a world I previously only knew in a very superficial way, and I’d like to learn more about it. Given the intricacies of political situation at that time (and, to a lesser extent, even now), there’s clearly a lot more material that McKinty could make use of, in his own darkly witty and stylish way.