Let's get the subjective part over first. The events of this novel largely take place in Belfast and neighboring towns in the spring of 1981. McKinty was still a child during this historic, tragic moment of Northern Ireland's recent history--and lived through them as a child--but I was a youngish adult, traveling through England and Europe for the first time. I didn't get to Northern Ireland, of course--probably wouldn't have even dared if I'd thought of it. But the Hunger Strikes which form a part of the background of this story were much on the mind of everyone in England that we met, that and the Royal Wedding, as well as the assassination attempt on the Pope and other things that mark this novel as accurate to its specific moment. So, for me, there is an odd nostalgia that goes along with this story, and it had an almost uncanny ability to restore the memories of a long forgotten time. It helped, I suppose, that we visited our old professor in Yorkshire, and he had some very definite opinions about Ian Paisley and Margaret Thatcher and everyone who was involved in Northern Ireland at that time, so that I was not completely ignorant of events, as normally I very well might have been.
But beyond all this, the real reason I'm crazy about this book is that it's actually the one I've wanted McKinty to write since I first began reading him. In Dead I Well May Be, we get a tantalizing look at life in Northern Ireland as the story opens, where we meet Michael Forsythe signing up for some illegal work in Belfast. No sooner do we start to settle into that life, though, than Michael finds himself fleeing the country entirely. Dead I Well May Be is a wonderful book, but there was a part of me that felt when we abruptly find him again in Harlem in a whole new life that I had been a bit cheated of something. The Northern Ireland that Michael Forsythe slips out of is not quite the Northern Ireland of 1981, but they are older brother and younger brother to each other. There is a bomb at the beginning of Dead I Well May Be, there are more than one in The Cold Cold Ground. One thing that most of us in the world are fortunate enough not to have experience of is what its like to try and live a normal life alongside of such violence with such random victims. This book, despite being a story about a crime, begins to tell us that.
The hero of our tale is Sean Duffy, a Detective Sergeant who has recently been transferred to Carrickfergus, a small coastal largely Protestant town within close reach of bellicose Belfast, but still separated enough to have its own culture and concerns. The police station is small and would be more likely to focus on insurance fraud and bicycle theft if it had its druthers, but the police force isn't exempt from getting out in full riot gear if Belfast or some other hot spot calls for support.
Duffy is a Catholic in a community that is self-protectively Protestant and could and sometimes does become hostile toward him. He's also a university trained man who was set for an academic career when one of Belfast's more violent moments touches him too deeply to ignore and sets him on the course that leads him to join the police. In other words, he's more than one kind of outsider. His stance, therefore is somewhat distanced as compared to others, and and he refuses to lead from a knee jerk partisanship in his reaction to events. (Although this doesn't make him a stranger to flareups of anger in other circumstances.)
The plot is a tight police procedural, with a couple of crimes floating around and investigating these takes Duffy and his team into many neighborhoods of Belfast and environs. Places like the Falls Road will sound familiar to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance of The Troubles, but McKinty knows both what they are and what they have been better than most. Here's how Duffy describes Rathcool to a colleague as they walk its "drab tenements and crumbling 1960s tower blocks.":
Rathcool comes from the Irish Rath Cuile meaning 'in the centre of the fort'. Once this was a royal palace for the kings of the Ulaidh. Now look at it. Concrete towers and row upon row of soulless terraces.
Most people could look it up on Wikipedia and then tell you of the recent history of Rathcool. Some might even give you that Gaelic meaning. But not everyone will give you the deep history of a place as they are describing the site of a run down tenement. Its the book's depth as well as its breadth, geographic and otherwise, that sets it apart.
Although Duffy is investigating a possible serial killer and things occasionally blow up in the background, don't be misled into thinking this is a grim tale. There's always humor running through McKinty's work, sometimes quietly, sometimes a groan-making pun. His ironic stance on situations that others have invested heavily in positions on always makes you look at things a bit differently.
Carrickfergus a little world. I'm glad McKinty came back to it, at least for awhile.
(If you'd like to get a sense of the opening paragraphs, here is a LINK.)