The Troubles and The Last Crossing by Brian McGilloway.

 (revised and edited from feature published 8/5/20)

Brian McGilloway’s Benedict Devlin series, (2007-2012), explore a place and people haunted by the violent and chaos of the past. Inspector Devlin is a Catholic Guard working cross border cases with his Protestant counterparts in the PSNI. A decade on McGilloway’s The Last Crossing, revisits the Troubles, significantly the peace is more stable but the trauma is still live. Moving between a callous murder in the 1980s and its ramifications is the present this is a tale of pain, guilt, memory and atonement. Thirty years on three former IRA comrades return to Martin Kelly’s ‘grave’ to retrieve the remains of the man they killed for the cause. 

Ireland has always been a land of poets and writers and crime fiction has become integral to its literary tradition dealing as it does with universal themes; love, greed, lust, revenge, anger and family but also distinctly Irish themes: the Celtic Tiger, dodgy property/land deals, a burgeoning criminal underbelly, immigration, racism and political corruption. And what Irish novel is not about religion, about church and state and the spiritual versus the secular? Then there’s the Troubles – The Last Crossing deals with the hurt of the past and the hope for the future.

Modern Northern Ireland/borderland fiction has a distinctly rooted feel. We moved on from the1970s action thrillers as the peace process brought more insightful reflective fiction. McGilloway’s books recognise the pervasive nature of the conflict on real lives, a different kind of normality. While distance from the Troubles allows McGilloway to explore dark times more forensically, more openly.

The Last Crossing is about the disappeared, victims of the Troubles who vanished, murdered by the IRA, since the peace process began several bodies have been returned to their families. This is about Martin Kelly and his family wanting his body back. McGilloway explores the ethical and emotional issues surrounding his murder. The Last Crossing questions how an ordinary person becomes a terrorist? How Tony, Tanya and Hugh came to murder their friend, how they see that crime thirty years on and how they lived with it over the intervening period. In The Last Crossing The three former IRA members are forced to confront their own guilt but rather than heal the scars the trip lays bare old wounds and agendas. Time has distorted memory, the truth about the murder is only fully realised in the present.

Martin Kelly’s murder hangs like a pall over the community, a cruel and vindictive ‘punishment’, a way of establishing control and fear. It’s a lasting scar which this novel conveys in its sombre poignant tone. Martin Kelly fell foul of this “frontier justice” and was murdered in a forest outside Glasgow. The novel asks to what extent the sins of the past can be addressed? Tony got into the IRA following the death of his brother at the hands of the British army but has carried the guilt of Kelly’s murder for thirty years. The story is weighed down by history, by a sense of melancholy, grievance and injustice and is told with compassion and understanding. This is an enjoyable thriller but moral complexity is what gives the murder mystery gravitas and real world credibility.

Since the Good Friday Agreement Adrian McKinty, Gerard Brennan, Anthony J Quinn, Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville and, of course, Brian McGilloway have attempted to make sense of the past: the role of the police, (protect or repress), terrorism, political corruption and collusion with paramilitaries, criminals/drugs/prostitution and the role of the secret services. The Devlin novels were written at a time when the peace process was fragile, no one knew how it would unfold. The Last Crossing looks at how community perspectives have shifted over time, this is an age when the Troubles are over but they’re not are they? Not in living memory and not in ramifications, (Brexit).  

As a novel that speaks to our times I highly recommend The Last Crossing and if you like this novel I’d recommend Turncoat by Anthony J Quinn

Constable, paperback, ISBN 978-0349135014, out 4/2/21.

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