Adrian McKinty: Ulster thriller writer storming bestseller charts
Adrian McKinty left Carrickfergus decades ago, but it's his potent memories of growing up there that inspire his hugely popular detective series
Published 30/01/2014 | 11:10
There's a new wave of celebrated crime fiction novelists from Northern Ireland and the Republic and Carrickfergus-born Adrian McKinty is cream of the crop, along with Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes and John Connolly.
Now living in Melbourne, Australia, the Oxford philosophy graduate is receiving rave reviews for Tomorrow I'll Be Gone, the third in his Sean Duffy detective series, with critics comparing his stylised prose to legendary authors James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard.
McKinty's hero Sean Duffy is a middle-class Catholic detective recruited by MI5 to track a master bomber and Maze escapee, amidst the sectarian violence of the early 1980s.
His latest story is set in the run-up to the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984, famously bombed by the IRA. McKinty has Duffy living on Coronation Road in the Victoria Estate in Carrickfergus where the writer grew up, but where new developments have since sprung up. "Duffy's largely got my taste in music and I suppose there's a little bit of me in him," he admits. "They say there's a little bit of you in all your characters, even the evil ones."
McKinty comes back every year to visit his widowed mum Jean, younger brother Gareth and sisters Diane and Lorna in Carrickfergus and his older brother Roderick in Portsmouth. His late father Alfie McKinty was a shipyard worker and he was aware of the stories of sectarianism there, although his father would never talk about it.
"It was hard even to get him to talk about the Titanic and Harland & Wolff built the bloody thing," he tells me.
"He had some good stories about when he left the shipyards and went to work on the oil tankers though – nothing that can really be repeated in a family newspaper unfortunately.
"I totally think sectarian attitudes can be eradicated. My old philosophy believes that there is no progress at all in human morality, and even civilisation is just a temporary blip between barbarisms. I don't buy that. I like the old Whig interpretation of history, where everything gets slightly better as time marches on, or as Martin Luther King put it, 'the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice'. Things seem to be getting better in Northern Ireland. Certainly they're better than the Seventies and Eighties."
McKinty has a generic Northern Ireland accent with a hint of New York, from his years there after university working as a security guard, barman, book store clerk, rugby coach, door-to-door salesman and librarian. In 2000, he relocated to Denver, Colorado, to become a high school English teacher, and began writing fiction. He and his family moved to St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia in 2008. His Boston-born wife Leah is an English professor at Monash University in Melbourne, and they have two daughters, Arwynn (11), and Sophie (8).
"I met my wife in Oxford, fell in love with her and followed her to New York. I was an illegal there for the first few years, until we got married, so I ended up doing lots of interesting jobs, some for a few days, some for a few months.
"Our daughter's name Arwynn comes from Arwen in Lord of the Rings because my wife and I met for the first time in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to go to read out their stories to one another," he explains.
"I tried the 'Did you know that The Hobbit was written in here line?' and she was all 'check please! Get this geek away from me'."
As a writer of young adult fiction initially, McKinty had been avoiding the Troubles for years after he'd been discouraged from writing about it by agents and publishers who held that no one was interested in that topic.
But the idea for Detective Sean Duffy wouldn't go away and once he started, the memories of Belfast from 30 years ago came pouring out: the security barriers around the city, the Army patrolling the streets with loaded rifles, the bombs and the constant drone of Army helicopters.
Only 15% of all policemen in the RUC at that stage were Catholic so McKinty had what he describes as a ready-made noir staple – an outsider, "a Catholic, slightly better educated, slightly more middle class cop" in a Protestant working class police station".
"I remember the fire-bombing of the Co-Op in Belfast in the early Seventies. I remember the Europa bomb – the big one that left the crater. I remember the Hunger Strikes, Michael Stone, Enniskillen, and so on," he says. "Oh, and I was in a fight in school once that left me with a smashed face and 17 stitches, but I don't know if that was related to the Troubles or just general high spirits.
"My worst memory is of getting knocked down by a police Land Rover and left lying in a sheugh in the middle of nowhere late at night. That was pretty terrifying. My best is scoring a try in a Schools' Cup rugby match. It was definitely a high point, especially since all the backs and the teacher kept telling me to pass the ball and I just hung on to it all the way to the line."
In 1999 McKinty played loose head prop forward for the Jerusalem Lions Rugby Team and he's pictured on his blog spot wearing his old Ulster rugby shirt with the Red Hand of Ulster logo.
"I've had that shirt for years. Occasionally you'll be walking in some obscure corner of the world and someone will stop you and say 'Hey Norn Iron?'," he laughs.
So what does he make of Wikipedia defining his nationality as British/Irish?
"Ha! If only it were that simple. British/Irish/American/Austral-ian?" he says. "I speak with a Northern Irish accent with a tinge of New York, my wife has a bit of a Boston accent, my oldest daughter talks with a Denver accent and my youngest has a true blue Aussie accent. It's complicated."
Publishers Weekly has called McKinty "one of his generation's leading talents", while Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post has praised him as a leading light in the new wave of Irish crime novelists. He has been criticised for the explicit use of violence in his novels, however John O'Connor reviewing McKinty's Fifty Grand in The Guardian, called him a "master of modern noir, up there with the likes of Dennis Lehane". And The Wall Street Journal has praised his use of irony and humour as a counterpart to the violent world inhabited by McKinty's Sean Duffy character.
The dry sense of humour comes across in his active blog, where he often champions our Belfast Poet Laureate Sinead Morrissey.
"When I watched Sinead Morrissey read last year I noticed that she too had memorised not just her own poems, but a John Hewitt poem that she recited," he says.
"My generation was brought up to memorise poetry by rote. Pages of text that I've never forgotten. And good stuff too: Shakespeare, Swift, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Yeats, Wilfred Owen, Dickinson, Kipling, Auden, MacNeice and all the way up to Heaney.
"I think this still goes on in schools in Northern Ireland where old habits die hard and trendy teaching hasn't quite destroyed memorisation and rote learning."
So how does he reckon Belfast became a world poetry capital?
"Well the Seamus Heaney Centre certainly helps. The Arts Council for Northern Ireland does a great job, but I bet you every child in the Greater Belfast area over the age of 12 can recite at least one poem and that's down to ancient cultural habits and old school teaching methods," he says.
"Irish fathers still have certain responsibilities, and by the time my two daughters turned seven they could swim, ride a bike, sing at least one part of a Woody Guthrie song and recite all of WB Yeats's The Song of Wandering Aengus. Yes, you can Google anything you want at any time but there's something to be said for knowing a poem in your bones and being able to recall it at will."
Another Morrissey the writer admires is the acid-tongued former frontman of The Smiths. Doesn't he think the wordy singer – who attracted flak for the longeur in his memoirs, might over-write the novel he's currently working on?
"I loved his insane over-the-top poison spitting in Autobiography and I've been taking a survey about it – half the people I've recommended it to have hated it with a passion and about half have loved it too," he says. "I reckon opinion on his novel will be about the same deal, although I hope it's a ghost story, the bit in Autobiography with the ghost boy on the moors gave me chills."
Like Sinead Morrissey, McKinty says he had a happy childhood, going against the grain of Ernest Hemingway's famous contention that the best qualification for a writer was an unhappy one.
"I'd say mine was pretty good. I grew up in Victoria Estate in Carrick in the Seventies and Eighties in basically the last street in Greater Belfast before the countryside began," he says. "So if you walked one way you'd get deeper and deeper into the city and if you walked the other, deeper into the countryside. It was pretty magical that way. It was the period when just about everyone in Carrick got laid off from ICI, unemployment was sky high and no one had any money but the kids didn't care or even know about that.
"We played together in the street: endless games of 'kerby' and football and kick a tin. We could have our lunch or tea at anybody's house and that was an odd naïve and idyllic place. Yes the Troubles were going on, and there was violence, but also great togetherness and tenderness too.
"Things that seem strange now were just accepted: people checking under their cars for bombs, pat-down searches to go into the city centre, the night seemingly half the Army and RUC came to arrest one of our neighbours, bombs going off in Belfast."
At school in Carrick – where he was a prefect but also a self-confessed scruffy "messer" – he studied Victorian literature including Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy but fell in love with crime fiction when he discovered a Raymond Chandler novel in the Central Library in Belfast. He was further inspired by Evelyn Waugh, JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Cormac McCarthy, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and PG Wodehouse.
He's also a huge fan of croaky singer/songwriter Tom Waits and each of the three titles in the Sean Duffy trilogy are taken from Tom Waits songs: The Cold, Cold Ground, I Hear The Sirens In The Streets and In The Morning I'll Be Gone. His first Duffy book has been optioned for TV and an earlier novel Dead I Well May Be (with its title taken from the lyric in Danny Boy) has also been optioned for TV.
"Whether anything comes of either of those projects, your guess is as good as mine. I liked the recent BBC NI series The Fall and I hope it encourages more production of films and TV in contemporary Belfast."
And he adds: "I love Game of Thrones too although I don't understand why they haven't used Carrick Castle yet. Perfectly good castle sitting right there, come on guys!"
Belfast noir tops McKinty's list
For the time being Adrian McKinty is keen to promote Belfast Noir, a collection of short stories by leading crime writers Glenn Patterson, Eoin McNamee, Garbhan Downey, Lee Child, Alex Barclay, Brian McGilloway, Ian McDonald, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Claire McGowan, Arlene Hunt, Steve Cavanagh, Lucy Caldwell, Sam Millar and Gerard Brennan.
He says: “The stories were of excellent quality, some of the best crime fiction I've read in a single volume anywhere, and Belfast Noir will definitely be able to hold its head up high with the other volumes in the Akashic publisher series. With the success of The Fall, and the bestseller status of a surprising number of crime writers from Ireland, I think the wheel may finally turning towards Northern Irish fiction.
“For years the words ‘The Troubles', ‘Northern Ireland' and ‘Belfast' caused book buyers, programme makers and publishers to either shrug with indifference or shudder in horror; but the new generation of writers coming out of Belfast is so good that a previously reluctant audience has had their interest piqued.
“I've been saying on my blog for the last three years that the Scandinavian crime boom is going to end and the Irish crime boom is going to begin and I still believe that. The depth of talent is there.
“All it needs is a spark, hopefully Belfast Noir will add kindling to a growing fire.”