Friday, December 28, 2012

Review of The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway (Pan, 2012)

The island of Islandmore lies in the no-man’s land of the River Foyle that separates the Republic of Ireland from the North; the border runs right down the centre of the small slither of land.  In the past it has been used by fishermen, smugglers and as the site of a cillin - a non-consecrated burial site for children who died before they could be baptised.  A recent submission to the Commission of the Location of Victims’ Remains suggests it was used in the Troubles as a burial site for one of those that 'disappeared'.  As the Commission searches the island, using geophysics, a cadaver dog and diggers, for the body of Declan Cleary, who vanished in the 1970s after supposedly informing on a man that was then shot by the British Army, they find the body of a baby buried sometime in the recent past.  The postmodern reveals that she had been strangled.  Inspector Ben Devlin would like to investigate, but the law states that no death discovered by the Commission can be followed up on and prosecuted, even those that were not part of the Troubles.  Undeterred he starts to poke around, but is soon distracted by a fresh murder; it seems the dig on the island has bought old animosities to the surface once again.  Devlin starts to probe further into Cleary’s and the island’s past looking for clues, but is hampered by the fact that much of the case resides in North, outside of his jurisdiction.

The Nameless Dead is the fifth instalment of McGilloway’s Ben Devlin series.  McGilloway has the full measure of Devlin’s world - his family, police politics and rivalries, his embedding in the social and criminal landscape of the border.  The writing is very assured, with a lovely cadence and pace, and nicely balances plot, characterization, sense of place and contextualisation.  With respect to the latter two, The Nameless Dead skilfully weaves together the troubles and sexual politics of the 1970s with the politics of peace and reconciliation and the social realities and landscape of the post-Celtic Tiger crash in the border counties.  The plotting is particularly well done, interlacing a number of subplots to produce a layered and textured story that charts both the investigation and Devlin’s personal life.  Whilst the focus is very much Devlin, importantly McGilloway also adds flesh to the series’ secondary characters, and the ongoing subplots adds to the overarching arc of the series.  Overall, The Nameless Dead is a satisfying and superior police procedural in what is shaping up to be a very accomplished and enjoyable series.

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