It’s November 1920 in West Cork and Acting Sergeant Sean O’Keefe of the Royal Irish Constabulary is caught between the forces of the Crown and the IRA. O’Keefe was away fighting in the First World War when the 1916 rising took place and as an Irishman in the RIC he is charged with keeping the peace and suppressing the activities of those who want an independent Ireland, making him the enemy of his fellow countrymen. His police station has been turned into a fortified barracks and everywhere he goes he’s accompanied by British soldiers for protection. It’s a difficult state of affairs and the murder of a young woman, her mutilated body left in a field, a sign around her neck denouncing her as a traitor, is not going to make his life any easier. Very few people are prepared to talk to peelers for fear of retribution. O’Keefe’s superiors want the killer caught, but only if it serves their interests, and Dublin Castle sends their own detective to help. The IRA, understanding the potential propaganda if the killer is revealed to be from their ranks, are also on the trail. Dogged in his pursuit of truth and justice, O’Keefe tries to negotiate a path between Crown and Rebels in order to catch his killer.
There is much to like about Peeler. It’s well researched, with a great deal of attention to historical accuracy and recreating the social and political landscape of County Cork in 1920, and it’s well written with a decent plot and good characterization. Sean O’Keefe, in particular, is a well drawn and complex character caught as he is between two worlds. Indeed, I hope McCarthy has another O’Keefe book in the works as he’s somebody I’d like to spend a bit more time discovering. Another strength of the story is that it doesn't fall into the trap of a simplistic rendering of the Irish war of independence, instead providing a multifaceted and nuanced portrayal of the complex web of professional, familial and community loyalties and obligations. To my taste, the book though is a little too rich in historical detail – my preference is to front the story and let the context come through telling, as with Philip Kerr or Alan Furst, rather than to explicitly provide a lot of contextual scaffolding through extended description. This would have also had the benefit of slimming the book by removing or trimming some passages that had little to do with the plot directly. I would have also preferred a bit more balance in the O’Keefe and Farrell (the IRA man) threads. That said, this is a very good and entertaining read and if you like historical crime fiction then this comes recommended.