Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a great admirer of Adrian McKinty’s work – so I was pleased as Punch to receive an advance copy of his latest book Gun Street Girl, due out next week. And not only because McKinty is such a class writer; its arrival also confirmed that his Sean Duffy series would be continuing. The end of the previous book (the also singularly-titled In the Morning I’ll Be Gone) suggested that McKinty was bringing the story to a close, and would only be giving us a trilogy. McKinty certainly has form in this area – witness his three earlier books featuring professional assassin Michael Forsyth – but as a reader I certainly wasn’t ready to let Duffy go. Thankfully, the law of diminishing returns doesn’t apply in McKinty’s case, who yet again doesn’t disappoint. Gun Street Girl is as cool, controlled and enjoyable a piece of crime fiction as you’ll read all year, guaranteed.
For those not familiar with the series, Sean Duffy is a Detective Inspector in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, one of the few Catholic officers in a largely Protestant organisation. The books are set during the 1980s – the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland – and are a fascinating window onto the period. But it is not just the setting that makes the books so compelling. Duffy is also a terrific narrator – idiosyncratic enough to be memorable, but enough of a regular guy to remain sympathetic. Whilst he’s a maverick he’s a fully-rounded one, navigating his way through the literal (and actual) minefield of his home province.
In Gun Street Girl Duffy is drawn into a double murder, parents shot by a son whose body is subsequently washed up in an apparent suicide. As the case progresses it unfolds into something altogether more complicated, and the investigation takes Duffy across the water to England where he witnesses ‘policing in civilization… No one wearing body armour, no one wearing sidearms, no stench of fear… These guys didn’t know how lucky they had it.‘ There’s an interesting clash of cultures here, but Duffy is more than capable of holding his own against the Oxfordshire constabulary’s finest.
Dark as these themes may be, the book also has its lighter side. The relationships between Duffy and his detective colleagues are warmly drawn and believable, developing over the course of the book. Most interesting to me was the revelation that the RUC were viewed with contempt on both sides, republican and loyalist. This is a police force constantly under siege, one in which officers such as Duffy have to check under their cars every morning for bombs, and are regularly seconded to riot duty. ‘The second day of Operation Black we spent in West Belfast going to the Shankhill Road in the morning and the Falls Road in the afternoon and night. Attacked by Protestant kids and Catholic kids on the same day. Nice.‘ This is normal, to the point where Duffy becomes most incandescent when his car tyres are let down by local kids. ‘A mercury tilt switch bomb under the driver’s seat I can understand. That’s an assassination. I get it, but who lets down a man’s tyres?… You don’t mess with a man’s wheels.‘
McKinty once again makes good use of real-life people in the book – Gerry Adams makes a fleeting appearance – and also echoes several contemporary events. Certainly Gun Street Girl feels very authentic; and whilst the book does see some movement towards a more lasting peace in Northern Ireland, the ending also heralds much further uncertainty. There’s clearly much more narrative potential to be uncovered here – and I for one couldn’t be happier about that. Long live Sean Duffy, and long may he walk the mean streets of Ulster.