Dark Dawn

Anthony McIntyre reviews a crime novel set in Belfast in 2005.

This one, I read around the time I was tackling the disappointing The Twelve by Stuart Neville. Matt McGuire has penned a much better book, and for anyone who has had the misfortune of reading The Twelve, McGuire’s debut novel, Dark Dawn will speed up the recovery process. I confess to being somewhat baffled as to why some readers tend to feel McGuire and Neville as novelists have a lot in common.

Dark Dawn is very police centred but despite the crossover in time it avoids becoming thematically weighed down by the RUC, despite the PSNI facelift being a recent phenomenon. The past echoes for sure but the modernity of Belfast is captured in the existence of East European gangs. The city is grimy and grubby but never without its characters or humour. Focusing on Marty and Petsey, two local hoods, and allowing them considerably more than a cameo role, helped bathe in light the darkness at dawn.

And if the inclusion of a former republican prisoner with issues is obligatory, it is much better employed in Dark Dawn by McGuire than it was by Neville.

The main character is a PSNI detective, John O’Neill. A “peeler” with six years’ experience, having joined the RUC shortly after the Good Friday Agreement. He is tasked with a murder investigation once the body of a teenager is found on a building site close to the Markets area of Belfast. The past or the present is a question that invites consideration when the autopsy shows that the victim had been kneecapped prior to death. Belfast 2005, the line between now and then was even more blurred than it is today. And that is hardly a matter of clarity.

The reader gets a better feel for the time if they think back to the killing in Belfast in the very same month, January, of Robert McCartney, beaten and knifed to death by a gang enmeshed in the structures and history of the Provisional IRA in the city. That vile attack occurred within close proximity to the murder victim in Dark Dawn.

Based in the peace process the narrative draws a picture of nettles rather than roses. The aura exuded by Belfast is audibly prickly. It is drab place immersed in the problems that many other cities experience, but with years of violence under their belt there is no supply of old hands willing to carry on using force for ends not remotely regarded as political. 

One element of RUC culture remains as strong as ever: a general indifference to the victim which complicates the investigation even further. The general interest simply lacks the push to throw up leads. Yet if he fails to deliver O’Neill knows people more senior people will have it in for him.

The perennial authority figure and bane to O'Neill is to be found in Chief Inspector Wilson who doesn’t take to O’Neill acting up as sergeant. Despite the difficulties in the investigation, O’Neill has the protection and confidence of Detective Inspector Ward. But a review board sits in a matter of days and his tenure as sergeant is by no means secure.

Many fictional police characters are plagued by a combination marriage break up and drink problems, and in respect of the first O’Neill is not an exception. Still he is no Harry Hole and it is unlikely that his character could ever have taken off and reach the heights that the Norwegian detective phenomenon did.

A satisfying read, it at times allows the PSNI to come over as an almost normal police force, not endlessly consumed with covering up for the killers and torturers who once poisoned the well the PSNI continues to drink from.

Matt Maguire, 2013, Dark Dawn. Publisher C & R Crime. ISBN-13: 978-1780338705.

Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.

Follow Anthony McIntyre on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre      

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

1 comment to ''Dark Dawn"

  1. AM,
    These books are not my cup of tea. If someone wants to write a crime story about here they should base it on a murder through collusion and try and leave out the compulsory ex-Republican prisoner wracked with guilt and alcohol...always seems to be that's more realistic and not these absurd attempts at normalisation.


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