Friday, July 17, 2015

Disappeared by Anthony Quinn

Disappeared joins the ranks of other recent "post-Troubles" crime novels from Northern Ireland, especially in the Faulknerian 'The past is never dead. It's not even past'  sense. It's perhaps not entirely a coincidence that, as in Stuart Neville's novel Ghosts of Belfast, where one of the IRA's hard men is haunted by the victims of his brutality, this book opens with a wraithlike figure, wanting justice for the past. 

In this tale, though, it's retired Special Branch agent David Hughes who receives the visitation  on a stormy night. But as his mind is slowly coming apart due to Alzheimer's, neither he nor we can be sure exactly what the nature of this apparition is. Hughes takes up the case, but as this entails him vanishing from home, he also becomes the case of a police inspector recently returned to Northern Ireland from a long spell away in Glasgow. On top of this, he must investigate the brutal death of another man who seems to have led a quiet life, but may just have a hidden story. As Celcius Daly slowly realizes, these disparate circumstances may have more than a little to do with each other. 

Add to this the fact that there are people in high places who may not want some unpleasant truths revealed and, well, Inspector Daly may have his work cut out for him. 

There are a couple of reasons to read this book. The first is its thoughtful examination of how the past lives on in Northern Ireland and how people deal with their own roles in a violent era not far behind them. It's part of the growing discussion in Northern Irish crime fiction that wants to face this past more openly, including Neville's work and that of Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy books, set in the Troubles era itself. 

Another reason, though, is for the descriptive power of the writing. Set mostly near the shores of  the giant Northern Irish Lough Neach, it's a dark and brooding setting, full of wind and water, and as Quinn points out more than once, the hidden little country lanes have seen more things than their quietness reveals.

My favorite image, though, comes from deep within the book. It doesn't have any particular spoilers and may convey to you some of Quinn's talent:

"In one of his dreams, he found himself stepping out through the back door of his cottage into pitch-darkness. The door gave onto the black wind. Voices whirled and echoed in the howling air. He realized his eyes were closed against the darkness. Opening them, he gradually made out a sky of dim stars. But the brightest thing in the night was a flowering thorn tree in the middle of a dark hedge. Its naked black branches were laden with white blossoms, shining like clusters of stars. A line of ghosts shuffled along the hedge toward the tree, as though it offered some form of protection. He saw Oliver Jordan climb up into the tree, then others, like stowaways boarding a boat, reaching up on their tiptoes, hugging the twisted branches while the blossoms stirred in the dark wind like a set of sails.
"...He saw the thorn tree gather them all up safely into its branches, ready to bear them off to a safer haven. But there was something anchoring the tree, something buried amid its roots, preventing it from carrying its cargo of lost souls heavenward. He gripped the gnarled base of the tree and tried to shake it loose, begging it to uproot itself, but it would not budge. The branches grated together as if in pain. He began digging with a tiny silver trowel, scratching at the stony soil."

It wouldn't hurt anything to tell you whose dream that is. But it strikes me that it could be the dream of any of these characters and represents their longings as well as his. As a matter of fact, it could just as well be the dream of the author himself.

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