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Valentine’s Day with Duffy

February 15, 2023

In 2017, after we’d performed An Unhelpful Complication, my then mate Charlie persuaded me there was a novel in it. Not the scene in which the two characters found themselves, but the stories of their histories that led to their first meeting and this final confrontation. I found myself feeling quite enthusiastic about the idea. I even had a title for it: Murky Waters, which was an alternate title I’d considered for the play.

This would be a big project, spanning multiple decades and multiple locations. Unlike Unethical Practices, which required some research, and Rum Do, which had required very little, this was going to require a lot. 

I was going to need to write about National Service in the 1950s, SAS hijinks in the 1960s, Lebanon and Central America in the 1970s, Belfast in the 1980s and the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s.

I started ordering books (to add to the selection I already had of memoirs by or biographies of war correspondents) and reading. 

Just some of the consumed and book marked books.

When it came to researching Belfast and the Troubles in the 1980s, I turned for advice to my mate Owen who’d been the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent for nine years. (During this time his twin sons were born in Dublin, so, unlike him, they are still post-Brexit EU citizens.) I asked him to recommend books that would give me a sense of life in Ulster during that time. He recommended a number of non-fiction books, most of which I read. He also recommended some novels by a writer whose name I did not know.

Adrian McKinty grew up in Carrickfergus (where, I now know, his sister still runs a pub) during the Troubles.  In 2012 he published the first in a series of six novels about Sean Duffy, the only Catholic cop working in his division of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Duffy is a great character – smart, funny, insubordinate. All the things you really want in a detective.

I read and loved the first three books in the series, then, because the others were set after the year I was interested in, I moved on to other research.

The Duffy series definitely had a cult following, but did not set the world on fire. In fact (as I discovered reading an interview at the time), he was making ends meet driving an Uber in New York when his standalone novel The Chain was published in 2019. This was his big break. Tons of awards. And some time soon to be a film. (Which is, of course, where the real money in writing fiction is.) 

I read it and, yeah, it was fine. Mother’s desperate efforts to save her kidnapped child. A real crowd pleaser. I also read his most recent novel, The Island. Stepmother’s desperate efforts to save her stepchildren in a sort of New England version of Deliverance (without the banjos). Yeah, fine, but… (I don’t know. Maybe novelists should not have children.)

In a recent phone conversation with my friend Jane (prompted by our need to discuss the ending of the last Ian Rankin novel), she voiced her disappointment that another favourite Scottish writer, Christopher Brookmyre, had, in his recent novels, stopped being funny. True dat. Which made me think of McKinty and how much I missed the wisecracking Sean Duffy. Told her she should definitely check out that series. Quick look at the bookcase to remind myself what the first novel in the series was called. (The Cold, Cold Ground.) She said she’d get on it. Not sure if she has.

A little while later I had a head slap moment. It was all well and good to bemoan the lack of humour in McKinty’s latest novels, but there were actually three Sean Duffy books I hadn’t read. Quick visit online to Abe Books to correct this oversight.  

Hoovered up the first two as soon as they arrived, then moved on the this month’s Bad Girls Book Club selection.

Got back to Duffy on Sunday and last night shared my Valentine’s Day dinner with him.

I’m struggling not to hoover this one up, too. McKinty teases that there are three more Sean Duffys in the pipeline. He better not be lying.


Wait, what about Murky Waters, you ask? Well, I got this far before the whole thing dried up and joined the other unfinished novels on my computer.

From → Reading, Writing

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