Crime pays for Derry writer and his different type of detective
Brian McGilloway is a crime writer on the up. His second novel, Gallows Lane, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards' inaugural Crime Fiction prize, and his third book, Bleed A River Deep, has just been released. The books' central character, Inspector Benedict Devlin, is not your average fictional detective, however.
Happily married with two young children, he hardly ever takes a drink, and is neither violent nor misanthropic. For crime readers teethed on demon-riddled anti-hero cops like John Rebus and Harry Bosch, Ben Devlin can sometimes feel like a blow-in from another genre entirely.
‘I wanted something different,’ says Derry native McGilloway. ‘Instead of the hard drinking, maverick, divorcee stereotype I wanted someone that was relatively well-adjusted, relatively normal.’
That the fictional detective stationed in Lifford, Co Donegal is ‘not the kind of guy who makes wise cracks over dead bodies’ owes something to McGilloway’s own circumstances when he began writing Devlin, in 2002. With his wife pregnant with their first child, thoughts of impending change were foremost in the mind of the soft-featured English teacher at Derry’s St Columb’s College. ‘When I started I was interested in seeing how a detective would react, how he would balance having kids and doing their job,’ he recalls.
His protagonist might deviate from the norms of crime fiction, but McGilloway’s writing shares one crucial stereotypical trait with the genre’s finest exponents: prolificacy. Borderlands, a debut novel of impressive scope and depth set along the Tyrone-Donegal border, was published in 2007. Gallows Lane, was released last year, and the third instalment in the Devlin series, Bleed A River Deep, has just appeared on bookshelves across the country.
These are boom times for Irish crime fiction, with indigenous crime writers dominating the bestseller lists. ‘It’s just totally taken off. More and more people are buying crime novels,’ says McGilloway, singling out John Connolly as a personal inspiration. ‘He was the first Irish writer to show what could be done with the genre.’
Phlegmatic and mild-mannered, McGilloway often appears reluctant to acknowledge his own place in Irish crime writing’s vanguard, but others have not been so slow. National and international critics alike have heaped praise on his fast-paced and incisive prose.
Bleed A River Deep, named after an Ed Harcourt track, appears certain to consolidate this burgeoning reputation. The book opens in a newly opened Donegal gold mine on the eve of the arrival of a controversial US diplomat, and from there a labyrinthine and thrilling tale of big business, the new Europe, and environmental and social dispossession on both sides of the border unfurls.
Bleed A River Deep reveals the writer’s concerns about the treatment of the migrants who flocked to join Ireland’s metaphorical gold-rush. In the book, Devlin stumbles across a vicious people-smuggling ring operating from Strabane and sees first hand the atrocious conditions some migrants have faced. The inspiration for these passages came directly from real-life: in winter 2004 a Ukrainian woman, Oksana Sukhanova, lost both her legs to frost-bite after two weeks sleeping rough in Coleraine.
‘That person travelled halfway across the world in the hope of a better quality of life and look what happened,’ McGilloway comments. ‘I thought it was a sad reflection of the state of our society.’ Devlin mirrors the author’s robust social conscience - in Bleed A River Deep the inspector invites into his home a Chechen woman forced into prostitution in the north after her husband is shot dead during a botched robbery in Lifford.
Such cold, realistic depictions of modern border life have been characteristic of the Devlin books since the very beginning. ‘I didn’t want Borderlands to be another Troubles book. That’s not been my intention with any of them,’ the author admits. Instead of masked men and politics McGilloway gives his readers a fascinating insight into life on both sides of a changing and increasingly porous border.
‘The idea of the border suits Devlin. He is a man who doesn’t always know where the borders are, operating along a physical border that is no longer clear itself.’ Fittingly Devlin often finds it difficult to separate north and south, often treading on the toes of his Police Service of Northern Ireland equivalent, Jim Hendry.
The integral presence of the PSNI in the Devlin series begs the question why a Northern Irish crime novelist would choose to write primarily about a force policing what is essentially another country. Unsurprisingly politics played a part.
‘Originally Devlin was going to be a PSNI man,’ the writer explains, ‘but at the time I was writing Borderlands things were changing so much. The old RUC were being disbanded, but Sinn Fein were refusing to join the Policing Board. So I thought by the time I’d finished the book everything could have changed, and I’d end up with a novel that was anachronistic before it was even published.’
However, the PSNI have not escaped the full McGilloway treatment. With the fourth of the contracted five Devlin books finished and due out next year, the author is currently in the early stages of writing a stand alone book; the main character, a PSNI officer. Though anyone looking for staid Troubles fiction should look elsewhere - ‘I’m still not looking to write from a political angle.’
That McGilloway, a full-time teacher with three young boys, finds the time to write a novel a year of any hue is as remarkable as his success. ‘I structure my writing around the school year. The bulk of it being done in the summer months,’ he explains. Of course having an understanding partner helps too. ‘Tanya (his wife) is great. She’ll often take the kids off for a couple of hours in the afternoon or the evening so I can get a chance to write.’
Brian McGilloway is not the first famous literary figure to be associated with St Columb’s College. Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane and Sean O’Reilly were all past pupils of the fabled Derry institution (not to mention John Hume and Martin O’Neill).
How one school could produce so many famous names is a mystery worthy of Devlin himself. Though this is one riddle McGilloway will not be investigating: ‘I think the secret is that it has always been a great school. Though, I’m just happy to be the first crime writer to come out of St Columb’s.’
Bleed A River Deep is out now, published by Pan MacMillan