Pat Gray: The Redemption Cut
This novel is set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland when there was continuous fighting and terrorist attacks, involving the Protestants, the Catholics and the British army. The action specifically takes place in Belfast in 1976. The British government had just introduced its policy, whereby more authority would be given to the police instead of the army. The police force was primarily Protestant though there was an effort to recruit Catholics, as we shall see in this novel.
Inspector McCann had been absent for several months on gardening leave. What led to this is explained in Gray’s previous novel Dirty Old Tricks. With the Ulsterisation process and therefore the need for all resources, he is summoned back. His return starts with a severed arm found in the waste recycling station, having just come from a waste compactor. He is assigned a young Catholic constable, Sinead Flannery, who is sent to interview a family where the son has been missing for several days.
As is common in such stories, McCann is a maverick, who breaks the rules, ignores his bosses and uses the old-fashioned methods decried by his bosses who are in favour of modern policing methods. He gets into trouble on several occasions not just with his bosses but with the criminals he is investigating, who more than once get hold of him and take what they consider to be appropriate action. Constable Flannery learns from her boss and she, too gets into trouble both with her bosses and the criminals. She says of him Everyone seems to steer clear of him like there’s a bad smell off him. His boss says of him that he is a real wildcard. A kamikaze merchant going out alone.
However, there is one key difference between this book and normal detective stories, namely it is set in Ulster during the Troubles. Criminals in other such books may be loyal to a gang or a family. In this book, they are loyal to a cause, namely the future of Northern Ireland. The vast majority of the characters, police, criminals and others, are Protestant and therefore determined that Ulster remain a part of the United Kingdom and will do what it takes to ensure that happens. As McCann says both sides addicted to a fantasy, to something that will never happen. However, given that this book was written well after the Good Friday Agreement which led (more or less) to a peaceful settlement, the forecast by one character (rejected by McCann) that one day both sides will tire of the senseless violence and come to terms seems to us obvious but not to most of the characters.
For police going after non-partisan crooks, it is often straightforward as the police see themselves as the good guys and the criminals as the bad guys (though there are corrupt police officers). However, in this book the police (the vast majority of whom are Protestant) are all too often sympathetic to the criminals who support their cause and equally ready to believe that any dastardly deed has been committed by the other side, i.e. the IRA, despite evidence to the contrary. This very much hampers the investigation in this story.
One interesting issues is that two of the key investigating police officers are women. Was that likely in the RUC in 1976? I am not competent to judge but Gray certainly paints them sympathetically. They are subject to a certain amount of sexism but not much and both do their jobs very well.
We know, as always happens, that our maverick hero will win through and show up his bosses as idiots and, of course, we know that the violence will eventually more or less cease. However, en route, Gray tells a very enjoyable story and shows up the entrenched attitudes, the bad behaviour on all sides (you go climbing up on the moral high ground because there’s none of that left says one criminal to McCann and, when asked Aren’t people meant to be innocent until proven guilty?, he responds Not here they’re not. It’s safer to assume everyone is up to something till you’ve proof of the opposite.) Fortunately, McCann has more or less been proved wrong.
First published in 2022 by Dedalus Books