Northern Ireland: More than rain. An interview with Adrian McKinty

By Daniel Magennis. PhD Student. Queen’s University Belfast.
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Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series.

I meet Adrian McKinty in the Piano bar in Belfast’s Europa Hotel – the self-proclaimed ‘most bombed hotel in Europe’ – to discuss his multi award-winning Sean Duffy series, the Northern Irish identity and growing up in Carrick during the darker years of Northern Ireland’s short but turbulent history.

McKinty arrives after a busy morning – he’s been on a panel as part of the Noireland festival (Northern Ireland’s first international crime fiction festival), recorded a podcast with The Irish Times and attended a book signing – to a waiting gin and tonic served in an over-sized burgundy glass, something very in vogue in Belfast at the moment. McKinty’s eyebrows raise when he sees it, but is, I think, impressed with Belfast the parvenu. The city has changed considerably since the end of the Troubles – generally agreed to have been in 1998, at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement; predictably there is not agreement on the name of the Agreement). I ask McKinty why it took until then for Northern Irish authors to take on the subject themselves.

“I remember in the 80s and 90s there was almost nothing. There was Colin Bateman writing from a funny perspective and then there was Eoin McNamee… Apart from that there were no contemporary people looking at Northern Ireland through any kind of vector, through crime fiction, through science fiction, through literary fiction, there was no attempt to deal with the Troubles, and it was basically outsiders like Jack Higgins, and Gerald Seymour – guys from England.”

As to precisely why Northern Irish popular authors largely avoided the subject entirely; “It was basically a society that was scared, and under siege, and it almost maybe seemed vulgar to be dealing with these issues that were so intense and scary. And then you got perspective – the peace process in 1998 – and about maybe 10 or 15 years later, after the peace process, in about 2012 or 2013 you started getting the first books coming through… It took a while for everybody to get over everything and deal with the stress.”

Traditionally viewed as devoid equally of quality and authenticity, novels and films created during the Troubles – sometimes dubbed ‘Troubles Trash’ were problematic, to say the least. “Well,” McKinty continues, “I thought the Hollywood films from that period, and even the British films, in the 80s and 90s. I think they’re almost universally bad. They’re just really, really bad films. Artistically complete failures, every single one of them.” I mention their obviously unintentional, almost comedic nature today… “Yeah, there’s that Micky Rourke one [the 1987 film A Prayer for the Dying, itself an adaptation of the Jack Higgins novel of the same name, written in 1973] which is laughably terrible, then there was a couple of Brad Pitt ones. They’re just such terrible films – complete artistic failures – and that really put a lot of people off the genre, or looking at the Troubles in any kind of dramatic way at all. The films are so ugly, and clumsy, and clunky…”

These representations are all the more embarrassing and terrible when compared to the much more accomplished contemporary representations from Northern Irish poets: “In the 1970s you have Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon and Ciaran Carson who are looking at the Troubles in this incredibly sophisticated and intelligent, self-reflexive, inward-journey way using all their powers of observation and the poetic metaphor. And so that seemed to be a very, very high level and then the 1980s and 1990s films and books were just so crap.”

Achingly low standards in popular fiction may, in an odd way, have been a boon to McKinty and his contemporaries when their time came to approach the Troubles as a subject: “in general, the artistic level was extremely poor of treatments of the Troubles so really it was an open field when people like me, and McGilloway and Neville went to start writing these books. Because the standards were so low, really, if we wrote with even a modicum of intelligence… Even if we’d done something really shitty it still would have been better than the absolute keek[1] that had gone before.”

The Duffy series centres around Belfast and the Co. Antrim town of Carrickfergus. For McKinty, in light of these shockingly inaccurate and clumsy portrayals, this was an ideal locale for his unusual protagonist. Insinuating Duffy into the fabric of Carrick allowed him to adopt the persona of the wry outsider: “I’ve always loved the character of the insider/outsider. Somebody who is embedded in the culture but can also take an Archimedean outside perspective on it. I just loved all those figures. Going back to [Albert Camus’ 1942 novel] L’Étranger which I must have read when I was 16 or 17, you’ve got this guy who is embedded in French Algeria but he doesn’t fit in – he’s an outsider. I just thought that’s so interesting, that idea, that trope. That was one the things I loved about having Duffy. I was able to put him in the milieu I grew up in but I was able to use him as a way of interrogating that milieu. Which I love. I made him Catholic, a policeman, bohemian and from Derry – four things what were so alien to the people of Coronation Road, Carrickfergus. If an actual alien from space had landed it probably wouldn’t have been as shocking as a Derry Catholic cop walking down their street.”

In this, McKinty has permitted himself some artistic license – the Carrick of the 1970s and 80s was a very homogenous one: “It was a Protestant housing estate which was basically controlled by the UVF. Very homogenous, very white, very Protestant. It’s quite funny – there were two Catholic families on my street which was very strange, and it was almost like they were the pets – the protected Catholics. It meant ‘we can’t be so bad – look! There’s two Catholic families that we’re allowing to live on the street.’ Which is a very odd, condescending attitude. I think they were very proud of the fact that they hadn’t burned out the Catholics! ‘Aren’t we so great we haven’t burned out the Catholics yet?’”

One minor character, in particular, the local paramilitary hard man – Bobby – has a disturbing inspiration. Adopting a typical darkly humorous attitude, McKinty, laughing, recounts a local UVF commander who lived on the same street as him: “I remember that guy and he was so terrifying to me as a child. He was really, really scary. I was about 11 or 12. He was about 35 and his wife was about 22 and she was a hairdresser. She worked in a salon, but she would also take neighbourhood kids in to get their hair cut. It was so terrifying, to go and get my hair cut at her house, but with that guy and he’d be chain-smoking, walking around in the background on this tiled, kitchen floor and he’d be going ‘These fuckin kids, what’re they doing here? Fuckin wanna get in for a fuckin drink, and you’re fuckin cutting their hair and you’re probably doin it for fuckin free…’ And he’d be flicking cigarette ash – it’d be falling down your neck… It was such a terrifying experience with this guy. He eventually went to prison for murdering three men. Of course he’s been released now, under the Good Friday Agreement. But he was given life for a triple murder – he was a terrifying individual – and he lived three doors down from us. That was such a weird environment – the monsters were real and they lived three houses away, down your street.”

I ask McKinty if the Troubles as a vein for artistic inspiration is close to being exhausted: “I think I’ve maybe got one or two [novels in the Duffy series left]. I’ve been doing them chronologically and I’m up to 1988. I might have one in 1990 and 1992. The first IRA ceasefire, if I remember correctly, was 1994. So I wouldn’t want to go much past that so I think I’ve got maybe one or two more books and then I feel I’m done.”

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The business of writing about the Troubles may, I suggest, provide an ethical issue for the author. “That’s an interesting question” McKinty concedes. He continues “I kind of feel I have no responsibility, whatsoever, to do truth with a small ‘t’. I do a lot of physical, primary research on the ground – pacing out distances and taking photographs and figuring out geography. But in the end I actually just don’t care about any of that. To me, I feel an artistic responsibility to make a self-integrated work of art and that’s far more important than accuracy, or sending a message about the past, or helping people deal with this past. I feel that’s not my responsibility at all, my responsibility is to write a book that is artistically true to my sensibilities and everything else, I just don’t care about.”

“Werner Herzog talks about this – the truth of accountants versus the truth of artists. The truth of accountants, he says that they want to say “the A2 wasn’t opened until 1999 and you have it being opened in 1998” or whatever and the truth of accountants does not interest me at all. What’s interesting me to is artistic truth: are the emotions real? Are the characters true to themselves? Do they go on interesting emotional journeys, do they make that inner journey. To me that’s much more interesting and important than this truth of accountants… The important thing is whether it is a good book. And if it’s not a good book, everything else is fucking irrelevant.”

The truth McKinty does manage to get across in his novels is the liminality and mutability of identity for those living in Northern Ireland. He points, by way of example, to the Northern Ireland football team, of which he is a supporter; “The Northern Ireland football team is a very troubled entity. Certainly in the 80s, I remember it was openly sectarian. Catholic supporters and Catholic fans on the cop were harassed and bullied and driven out. Even Catholic players were booed at or sometimes had things thrown at them. And a lot of Catholic players in Northern Ireland would rather play for the Republic of Ireland team and so that’s why this little team that represents 1.9 million people living in Northern Ireland, but half the population owes them no allegiance whatsoever. And they’ve got this really complicated sectarian past, which they’re getting over but still it’s there.”

Northern Ireland’s troubled past, however, is the bread and butter of some of its best novelists today. “You think to yourself, how much easier it would be to be an English supporter. It’s so simple; you’re born in England, there’s your team – you’re team is actually quite good – they usually qualify for the World Cup. Or to be a Scottish and a Scotland supporter, it’s very, very uncomplicated and very, very easy. But to support Northern Ireland, it’s so much more complicated and you have to have all these competing ideas in your brain at the same time; I remember the sectarian past, I remember the hatred, I know this state is artificial, I know that this identity is completely constructed and fake and yet I’m still supporting the team… It’s so much more challenging and interesting. I remember thinking, if I’d been born in Essex and had grown up supporting Chelsea and England, and I’d grown up having this uncomplicated English identity, how dull that must be, how deadly boring – my God! Growing up in the mid-west in America, or maybe you grow up in Alabama and you watch NASCAR, you watch football, you chant “USA! USA!” at games – how dreary and dull and boring that is. I think in Northern Ireland we’re actually very lucky. To have this very confusing, very complicated, very interesting identity that makes you work and makes you think. It really.. you have to navigate it and think about it and work hard on it every day. That’s a good think. I used to think it wasn’t but now I realise it is.”

Thank God for partition!

“Yeah. Well it’s probably not going to last too… Well, actually… I used to think, before Brexit, I used to think “well, this is great. Borders are gradually evaporating, Nationalism is gradually ending, all this stuff is becoming less and less relevant and we’re probably going to be living this pan-European identity and it’s going to be very, very simple and straightforward. And then Brexit comes along and you just think – “Fuck! I was wrong about that, have I been wrong about everything?” So, sometimes, history will throw you a loop, you know?”

During this time McKinty has been enjoying his generous measure of local gin. “They say you can tell quite a lot about a man from what he drinks,” I say. “What does the vodka gimlet [the drink of choice of McKinty’s protagonist] say about Duffy?”

“I travelled around India for a couple of months, about 17-18 years ago. India is very hot, very dusty, very weird, very dangerous and at the end of the day you’d end up in a hotel or a guesthouse and they had this drink there – it’s called the Nimbu pani. It’s basically lime juice, sparkling water, ice, and, sometimes, they’d put vodka in it. And I just thought it was the most refreshing, unbelievably fantastic drink. I starting drinking those while I was in India. I thought, Duffy is a sophisticated guy, maybe he drinks a Nimbu pani? And then I though, no, it’s not really hardcore enough for a cop living in 80s Northern Ireland. What if he keep vodka in the freezer and a pint glass in the freezer, and he makes himself a fucking pint of vodka gimlet every night – that sounds about right. Three inches of vodka, some lime juice, sparkling water and ice. And at the end of the day, he just lies on the sofa, puts it against his forehead and he thinks ‘Aw, fuck. I got through another day. I’m still alive.’ I think, just the idea of how great and how relaxing that would be, that’s what he’d do.”

The hard-drinking detective who can’t hold down a relationship may be something of a tired trope – and is one which Duffy knowingly inhabits – but this, like so much in these novels, is not far from truth. “All the cops back then were all self-medicating. I remember going to that police station in the early 90s so it’s a little bit after my period and you’d go up to the Incident Room and there’s a pub right next door, called the Royal Oak, and the cops would go to the pub, get a big tray of Guinness and they’d carry them over to the Incident Room. So you’d be in there to report your bicycle getting stolen or whatever, and the cops would be chain-smoking Benson and Hedges and drinking pints of Guinness. I remember saying that to a friend who is a policeman now in Carrickfergus and he said “you wouldn’t get that today”. There’s not even smoking allowed in the police station. It was a totally different time.”

“There’s something less romantic about the PSNI political correctness…?” I ask.

“Yeah, it’s true. It’s good that that’s changed. It was very intimidating for women, I think. When you go into this room and there’s a bunch of guys – and it was all men – and they were all a bit boozy and drunk, so I’m glad times have changed. It’s better reserved for fiction than real life.”

One trope which McKinty happily eschews however, is the brief and catchy thriller title. Generally becoming progressively longer, I ask how is it he gets titles like Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly past his publishers.

“That was a total nightmare. So all the titles of the Duffy novels are all quotes from Tom Waits songs. There were some obvious ones, like ‘I’ll Be Gone’ and ‘The Cold, Cold Ground’ but some were a bit more obscure, like ‘I Can Hear the Sirens in the Streets’ was a very obscure Tom Waits from the 70s that nobody knew about, so they really protested that one. First of all they said, ‘well, no one has heard of it,’ and the title was far too long to fit on the spine, thirdly, it doesn’t really mean anything. So they didn’t like that. Gun Street Girl they liked – it has the word ‘girl’ in the title… But then it came to Rain Dogs, and they asked ‘What does that mean? There are no dogs in the story…’ – they’re taking it very literally. But they liked it because it was two words. I was getting more and more, progressively upset by their literalism. And so I saw this Tom Waits quote and I liked the song, “Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly” and thought, that’s perfect. And it’s also good because they’ll hate it. And again, I turned it in to my editor and she said ‘the title will have to go’ and I said ‘I’m not going to publish it under any other title” … My editor’s boss called me, the head of marketing called me, the publisher himself called me, and they all tried to get me to drop the title. And then, when I had finally fought that war, and was exhausted, then it began with the American publishers.” His resolve unweakened, McKinty said he would simply point American fans to Amazon UK. “Things got quite testy there, but I just really wanted the title and stuck with it.”

It seems the stubborn, uncompromising stance is one which McKinty admires. His favourite crime novel? “James Elroy’s The Cold Six Thousand … I think The Cold Six Thousand is my favourite one, because it’s so fucking uncompromising. And hard to read, and crazy – totally insane. And a lot of people hate it and want their money back – which is exactly why I love it so much. After that, he pulled back. The last one in that trilogy – Blood’s a Rover – goes back to a more conventional style, like he’s lost his nerve. I guess, maybe, sales weren’t so good. But in The Cold Six Thousand, he keeps his nerve, he’s completely uncompromising, he follows his vision and it’s a very unpleasant, difficult, wonderful read.”

Both our glasses are now empty and McKinty has only minutes until another engagement. I decide to be accommodating and end the interview here.

[1] Northern Irish for “crap”.

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