For me, one of the most appealing aspects of British crime writing is its regional diversity. I can’t think of another genre that does it so successfully (is there such a thing as Northern Science Fiction? Actually, I quite like the sound of that – if anyone out there is writing it, get in touch). There are writers so closely aligned to their home cities that you can now do Ian Rankin tours of Edinburgh, and see Inspector Morse’s Oxford. The crime genre is also perfectly placed to show you all levels in society, following the investigating detective from the rich man in his castle to the poor man at his gate – with the story often at its juiciest when exploring these extremes.
These narratives also give you the chance to explore somewhere you’ve never been. I’ve yet to visit Northern Ireland, but thanks to Adrian McKinty’s exceptional Sean Duffy series I feel like I know it a little. And alongside McKinty I can now put Gerard Brennan, whose excellent latest novel Undercover I’ve just finished.
Undercover is the story of police detective Cormac Kelly. Having infiltrated a criminal gang, Kelly is drawn into the centre of a kidnap plot; the husband and son of football agent Lydia Gallagher are being held in order to exert influence on her star client, up and coming Northern Irish footballer Rory Cullen. After a fire-fight Kelly manages to escape with the hostages, and the race is on across Belfast to evade the gang and reunite the family.
Alongside this strand, Brennan also gives us Lydia and Rory in London, Lydia having been forced to take Cullen back to England so the kidnap gang can carry out their plan. This movement between the two storylines kept the narrative moving and helped to build tension, but for me the Belfast sections were the most successful. Kelly’s breathless journey across the city is terrifically well-written; just when you think he’s gaining some traction another obstacle jumps into his way, and Kelly is forced to think on his feet and manufacture a way out. During these scenes, there’s also the development of a touching and well-drawn relationship between Kelly and Mattie, Lydia’s 13-year old son. Kelly takes on the role of surrogate father, and the growing link between them gives the book real heart amongst the action.
Kelly is an intriguing character, albeit something of a shadow. There’s a passage which describes his background, and why he originally joined the RUC. I’d like to see this explored in future books, and also hope that Brennan roots them more firmly in Northern Ireland; it’s a country with an extraordinary recent history, and I’d like to learn more about this, as well as a city (in Belfast) that the author clearly knows inside out.
Undercover is a great read. It has the pace and energy more commonly found in American crime fiction – ignore the place-names in Undercover and you easily could be in Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, Miami… That kind of universality is not an easy thing to pull off, but Brennan does it here and I look forward to the next book in the series. Chapeau, as they say on the mean streets of La Rochelle.