One thing that ensures that I will make it all the way through a book is if it is well written. The masterful use of language is something I have always admired and to which I aspire (although how successful I am is up for grabs!). I recently chanced upon a book by a man named Anthony Quinn called Disappeared (Mysterious Press.com / Open Road – available July 24, 2012). Quinn had me at hello. Check out the first sentence in the book:
All winter, retired Special Branch agent David Hughes waited for the sun the shear the black horizon and lift the gloom.
Not only is the idea of the sun “shearing” the horizon captivating, but the sentence sets the stage and captures the mood for what is a very dark and disturbing tale of sectarian violence in the wake of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
Here’s another example of his powerful mood-enhancing prose from later in the book:
The lough-shore fields and hedgerows were slipping back to fog and water. The mist crept ashore while the old man watched, wandering on the road behind him. Listening carefully, he could hear the muffled flight of each water droplet, the soft implosion that marked the disappearance of another tree, another house, another landmark as the fog sneaked up and enclosed him in walls of whiteness.
Beats the hell out of “It was a dark and stormy night.” But Quinn is Irish and the Irish always have had a way with words, don’t you know. This, his first novel, weaves an enchanting web of mystery as Detective Celcius Daly tries to solve the disappearance of an old man named David Hughes who is suffering with Alzheimer’s. It is years since the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland ended with the “Good Friday Agreement” of 1998, but ghosts still walk the countryside and seem to have spirited David Hughes away.
We soon learn that the missing old man is a former Special Branch agent whose job it was to recruit informers from within the IRA.
Incidentally, readers may want to familiarize themselves with the acronyms and terms that appear throughout. The “RUC” refers to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the name of the Northern Ireland police force until 2000, after which it would be called the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). “Special Branch” refers to a branch of the forces that dealt with special operations and worked to develop informers within the IRA.
Hughes’ disappearance is soon tied to the death of an IRA member named Oliver Jordan nearly a score of years earlier. A bomb Jordan had set failed to go off because the battery had been taken out. The IRA smelled a rat, especially when Jordan was released from custody, and inferred that he was an informer. Jordan was marked for death—a slow, brutal, and painful death. Unfortunately, Jordan hadn’t been an informer. Someone set him up. Celcius, a Catholic man inconveniently more interested in truth than in sectarianism, finds himself overcome with a “raw desire for justice”.
The only problem is, it seems that the PSNI Special Branch doesn’t want him looking into this old stuff and he is stonewalled throughout the investigation. A hard-boiled cynicism seems to have infected officials over the years and Daly’s search for the truth threatens to put him in harm’s way.
Daly is already damaged goods. He is dealing with a separation that has left him morose and he carries this sadness with him everywhere. When he meets Jordan’s widow, Tessa, in the course of the investigation he finds himself attracted to her and this fills him with Catholic guilt over what seems to be an infidelity (even though his estranged wife seems to want nothing more to do with him). Still, he starts to care for Tessa and soon takes her teenaged son under his wing.
Her son Dermot, however, may in fact be part of the mystery. The boy is deeply troubled over the death of his father, a man he hardly knew, and is obsessed with finding out the truth—or at least recovering his father’s corpse. His involvement in the affair will complicate things for Daly, especially since the Special Branch is out looking for the boy too in order to clean up “loose ends.” Soon Daly finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Quinn’s novel captures the horror and inhumane behavior of sectarians in Northern Ireland, even following the much-heralded end to the “Troubles.” The Good Friday Agreement may have caused the barbed wire to come down but it did little to end the hard feelings. An informer was the lowest of the low. The thought is well expressed by Father Fee, the parish priest in Quinn’s novel, who knew that “if you raped your next door neighbor it would soon be forgotten, but if your grandfather was an informer you would be an outcast all your life.”
The story of Oliver Jordan is fiction, but it smacks of headlines about the murder in 2006 of former Sinn Fein member Denis Donaldson following his disclosure that he had been an informer for the Special Branch. Time does not, apparently, heal all wounds.
Quinn has developed a plot that immerses the reader into a darkness we have only read about in the papers or seen on the late night news. I found myself wrapped in that wall of blackness only to be disappointed by an ending that would not allow me to escape. But then that may be Quinn’s whole point: maybe petrol bombs no longer are hurled into the streets, but darkness still looms over Catholics and Protestants alike in this war-weary part of the emerald isle. For those who lived through the worst, maybe there is no escape.
Copyright Isaac Morris 2012