Northern Lights: Adrian McKinty

Garbhan Downey on why the Carrickfergus crime writer is destined for the New York Times bestseller's list

Writers, in my personal experience, have all the social standing of the village idiot, without the attendant sympathy.

As a writer your job, in a nutshell, is to gather up every £5 note you’ve ever earned, stack them in a big pile and then invite all of your friends to watch you set fire to them. After the ashes cool, you then attempt to tap everyone you know into letting you do the same again. And again. And again.

Fifty GrandThere is no other calling that allows for so much public humiliation for so little money and so much effort. For if all else fails, politicians, footballers, Z-list celebrities and serial killers can always sell their stories – you can’t.

As a great poet nearly said, however, once in a lifetime, hope and mystery rhyme. And a crime-writer escapes from the cave so talented that you don’t even feel the urge to shoot him in the back.

Carrickfergus man Adrian McKinty is such an item. He is the next great thing. His new novel Fifty Grand, launched in No Alibis book store a couple of weeks back, is world-class. And I mean that literally.

Newspapers across the world, from the Guardian to the San Francisco Chronicle to the Barcelona Review are saying so. So much so, in fact, that even the begrudging Irish are beginning to pay attention.

For a number of reasons, I was very reluctant to try out McKinty for myself and only came to him earlier this year (2009). High among those reasons was my refusal to believe that anyone from the north, and younger than me, could truly rank among the greats of Spillane, Chandler, George V Higgins and Ed McBain (who himself loved McKinty).

So it was only out of sheer meanness that I picked up a copy of Hidden River two months ago, when I saw Bargain Books had it at the knock-down price of £2. But in spite of all my misgivings, it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

Hidden River is a simple tale of a drug-addled Irish cop seeking redemption in the hunt for an old flame’s killers in America. But it gripped me from start to finish like no other Irish crime novel I’d ever read. The pace, dialogue and atmospherics are all pitch perfect. And the plotting is so seamless, you never sense the needlework.

The challenge had been laid down. It was now a matter of honour to scran a free advance copy of Fifty Grand. And I’d heard on the grapevine that Gerard Brennan, generous host of Crime Scene NI, had two...

The book duly arrived and I devoured it whole in two sittings, letting the youngsters take themselves to bed. It’s almost unfair to say it’s even better than Hidden River, as it’s a bit like comparing Chandler’s Big Sleep to Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. But for my money, The Maltese Falcon was just that little bit more tightly edited and less meandering, and so it is with McKinty’s new work.

In Fifty Grand, a Cuban she-cop goes to America in search of her father’s killer and gets caught up in a cataclysm of violent espionage. In parts disturbing, brutal and melancholic, it contains some extremely graphic scenes, such as when Mercado eviscerates and emasculates her would-be rapist. But McKinty Hidden Riverknows where the line is and never descends into outright nihilism like Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke sometimes tend to.

The festering Cuba so evocatively sketched by McKinty is redolent of the dying eastern Europe, right down to the petty corruption and institutionalised paranoia. And his unflinching depiction of an America riddled with selfishness, opportunism and racism contains some of the most acerbic social comment I’ve ever read on the long-term consequences of the Bush family.

But hidden depths aside, this book is first and foremost an enthralling page-turner.

I was put in mind, time and again, of the second great novelist I happened on this year – Sweden’s Stieg Larsson, who tragically died after completing a trilogy of the greatest suspense thrillers the 21st century has yet seen. You don’t want the books ever to end. Happily though, I have seven more un-read McKinty’s to go – and he’s still only 40 and fighting fit.

McKinty, despite all his tough-guy edges, is an Oxford graduate, which in crime circles has as much cachet as a soup-stain on a silk tie. It comes as much less of a surprise to learn that he ditched a career in law to become, at various stages, a security guard and a rugby coach. He writes like a guy who could bite through your leg and spit the bones out through the gaps in his teeth.

He is not, I hasten to add, always the cheeriest of reads. And he is absolutely the last person I would want to be sitting beside when the plane hits turbulence (- let’s just shoot the captain now, and get it over with quick). So do not pick up his books looking for humour a la Bateman, unless you like it very dark.

If on the other hand, you still have doubts over whether the new generation of Irish crime-writers can mix it with the big boys, go out and buy Fifty Grand, immediately, and you will be convinced.

This, no lie, is the first thriller by a Northern Irish writer that could and should make it to the top of the New York Times bestsellers’ list. You read it here first.