Criminal mastermind: Talking to author Adrian McKinty
Co Antrim-born author Adrian McKinty was warned no one wanted to read about the Troubles. Now, 14 books later, he tells Ivan Little he's glad he ignored the advice. Plus we have a great free eBook by the thriller writer for every reader!
The man from the BBC in Belfast cautioned writer Adrian McKinty that he shouldn't trouble himself with the Troubles, which he told him were a no-go area for the broadcaster who wanted to commission scripts about the future, not the past.
Carrickfergus-born McKinty, who now lives in Australia, had been pitching what he thought was a marvellous idea to the BBC for a story about two Ulster policemen in the 1970s, but he left with his terror tail between his legs.
The 46-year-old crime novelist reluctantly took the advice from the Ormeau Avenue executive on board – it wasn't the first time he'd heard that the Troubles were a killer for bored readers who had closed their minds – and their books – to the conflict here.
He says: "Every publisher, or agent, I've ever met told me the same thing – that Irish readers don't want to read about the bad old days of the Troubles; neither do the English and Americans; they only want to read about the Ireland of The Quiet Man, when red-haired widows are riding bicycles and everyone else is on a horse."
However, in spite of the rejections, McKinty found himself more and more drawn to the idea of setting a series of books in his homeland and almost before he knew it, Sean Duffy, the Catholic detective who's the central figure in his latest novels, was born.
And it was something of a home delivery. For Duffy doesn't just come from Carrick, he also lives in McKinty's old house in Coronation Road in the Victoria estate, where the influence of loyalist paramilitaries wasn't a work of fiction.
A loyalist who lived just three doors away from Adrian was jailed for a series of sectarian killings. His arrest still haunts Adrian.
"The night the cops came for him his wife asked to use our telephone and then, Tony Soprano-style, told us to hide his gun from the police – I think my mum refused to countenance it."
Initially, Adrian reckoned he was ill-equipped to write about Northern Ireland.
"I used to think that I had zero experience of the Troubles," he says. "But when I started writing these books, weird repressed memories did start coming back to me. I was knocked down and dragged by a police Land Rover in a hit-and-run.
"A kid, who may or may not have had paramilitary connections, in my school punched me in the face and I had to get 17 stitches and my tear duct sewn back on.
"And I used to get a lift to school from a neighbour who was a major in the British Army, who would always check under his car for mercury tilt-switch bombs – except when it was very cold, snowing, or raining."
Looking back, from a distance, Adrian is surprised at the normality of the abnormality of it all.
"We were in Belfast as kids the night the Co-Op [in York Street] was firebombed and I remember at least two of the Europa [hotel] bombings," he says. "None of it was that scary – you just think it's normal, don't you?
"The most afraid I ever was when I was stopped with my American wife in the car at an impromptu LVF roadblock in north Belfast and the masked men started asking her all sorts of questions, but when they heard that me and my little brother were both from Victoria in Carrick they let us go."
Adrian, who has used Tom Waits' lyrics for the titles of his Duffy books, crafted the character of his detective from two different policemen he knew back home.
"But there's also a little bit of me in there. Duffy's musical taste is mostly mine, but he could drink me under the table. He was fun to write."
Adrian has also created a mix of real and only slightly-imagined characters as the other figures in the Sean Duffy books.
The late American car magnate, John DeLorean, who got millions of dollars from the Government to build a car in west Belfast, is one of the better-known players.
Recently, Adrian told an audience in Australia that DeLorean fascinated him. "My aunt actually met him and said he was a tall, charming man who had fantastic hair.
"I just had to put him in a book and, fortunately for me, he was no longer with us, so the libel lawyers didn't have any problems and I could say what I wanted," he says.
Not that he had to make up too much about the rogue businessman, who was caught up in a huge cocaine trafficking case, but was acquitted – claiming entrapment by the FBI.
Adrian also says that he wasn't hung up with historical accuracy in his books. "As long as the emotional truth is there, the actual facts themselves don't really matter that much.
"But saying that, I do a lot of research and I try to base it in reality, but I am not so concerned about the nitty-gritty of the actual day-to-day events. What I want to do is to convey the nature of the times."
Adrian admitted that explaining his Troubles' books to Americans was particularly difficult.
"They believe the IRA are the good guys and the Brits are the bad guys. But it's a bit more complicated than that."
The latest Sean Duffy novel – In The Morning I'll Be Gone – has undoubtedly received the best reviews of his career, with the Daily Mail saying it places Adrian McKinty in the front rank of modern crime writers.
The story is set against a backdrop of the IRA break-out from the Maze prison in 1984, when Duffy is recruited by MI5 to hunt one of the 38 escapees, Dermot McCann, an old schoolmate who became a top Provisional.
As well as the hunt for McCann, the book also centres on what's known as a "locked-room mystery".
Adrian says: "I've read about 100 books in that genre now. I love the idea that a murder is committed in a sealed room, with no possible way in, or out.
"These kind of books died out in English mystery writing in the 1930s, but I was very keen to attempt to put a locked-room mystery from the golden age into a very modern noir piece of crime fiction and see if it worked or was a total disaster. But I think it has worked."
Adrian has always been a keen reader – initially a science fiction nerd, to use his own words, but he never imagined he would become a writer. He studied law – and hated it – at Warwick University before going to Oxford to study political philosophy.
And it was only after he fell in love and moved to New York with his Bostonian girlfriend, Leah Garrett, that the seeds were sown for his writing career.
"I had gone to New York with no plan at all. I did a lot of jobs – barman, teacher, security guard, postman and construction worker – and I was meeting many eccentric characters and they were saying funny things, which I always wrote down. After a few years, I thought that maybe I had enough free dialogue that I could somehow spin into a book," he says.
"I had a few stories and longer pieces published here and there, but my first proper novel came in 2003 with Scribner, called Dead I Well May Be."
That was the first of a trilogy about a young illegal Irish immigrant, Michael Forsythe, who gets involved in East Coast mobs and ends up as a ruthless hitman.
Adrian stayed in the Big Apple for seven years before going to Israel for a year and, after his return to New York, he decided to move to Denver, Colorado, but the cold winters made him warm to the idea of a move to Melbourne, where Leah had been offered a job at a university, in 2008.
His crime writing, which he combines with his work as a book reviewer for a number of Australian newspapers, has flourished beyond his wildest expectations.
"I'm pretty shocked, to be honest. I thought when I wrote Dead I Well May Be that would be it. I thought it would disappear without a trace and I'd have gotten the writing bug out of system," Adrian admits.
"But it did okay and the publishers wanted another book, which was much harder to do, because I had to make stuff up now.
"And then it did okay, too, and they wanted another book. And now I was really desperate, because I felt I had completely run out of ideas. And that's the way it's been trundling along for the last 10 years – desperation, tears, panic and finally a book."
Adrian isn't the sort of writer who writes by rote.
"I've never been a believer in the word-count thing. I write slowly and tinker with the words and the word order and I throw a lot of stuff out.
"I don't know how I ever manage to get a book done. Sometimes, when I look at what I've done at the end of a week, it's about three paragraphs. Yet, somehow, the books do get written. Maybe it's the elves," he says.
"Most days I avoid the computer like the plague. If it really starts giving me black looks, I lock it in the desk drawer and put the key on a high shelf."
Adrian, who's now written 14 books – which have won him a number of coveted awards as well as critical acclaim – tries to get back to Northern Ireland once a year to visit his widowed mother and siblings.
But he's happy that the world has got smaller through technological advances via the internet. He's a regular blogger and follows the news and politics from here avidly on different websites.
He marvels at how absurd the differences between the two Ulster communities appear to be from thousands of miles away in Australia. "But, when you go back to Belfast, suddenly it becomes so important," he says.
His early passions during his days at Victoria Primary School and Carrick Grammar were Liverpool FC and the Ireland rugby team. He was loosehead prop for his Schools Cup team and his love for rugby was re-kindled in the strangest of places in later years before injury forced him to retire.
In Israel, he turned out for the Jerusalem Lions, a semi-professional team comprising mainly South African and English exiles who played all over the country and also in Egypt.
They also played a United Nations team in South Lebanon and found themselves coming face to stomach with enormous Fijian soldiers who beat them 75-0.
The Lions were told that if a hooter sounded they should run off the field into a bomb shelter, because it meant that Hezbollah rockets had fallen short of their targets in Israel.
Adrian said it was the craziest rugby game of his life – which might just find its way into a book.
What Adrian has to say about ...
- Influences – "After my classic sci-fi phase, I think maybe it was the classic, hard-boiled crime novelists Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and Jim Thompson. Then I got really into JG Ballard's stuff and his contemporary, English novelist Angela Carter. And then I fell under the spell of Cormac McCarthy and he's a t
- Family – "My dad worked at Harland & Wolff and then went off to sea, working as a merchant seaman on oil tankers before getting a job at the big ICI plant when it opened in Carrick in the late-1960s. My mum was a secretary at the DHSS."
- Religion – "I began to have doubts about the literal truth of the Bible when I figured out that it would take some doing to get 10 million species into an Ark about half the size of the Larne-Stranraer ferry, and then I saw the old Carl Sagan Cosmos show and that pretty much convinced me that the whole religion thing wasn't all it was cracked up to be."
- TV or films in the pipeline – "Both my Sean Duffy series and my Michael Forsythe series have been optioned for TV, but whether anything ever comes of this who can tell? I'm glad The Fall was a success and I hear my mate Brian McGilloway is getting adapted by the Beeb, so I think the time may be ripe for these kinds of stories now. But, like I say, who knows?"
- Favourite Irish writers – "Stu Neville, Glenn Patterson, Colin Bateman, Brian McGilloway, Ger Brennan, Eoin McNamee, Declan Burke, Lucy Caldwell, Ian McDonald, Claire McGowan, Alex Barclay, Garbhan Downey, Arlene Hunt and many, many more."
- Any misconceptions about you? – "Only that my photo doesn't do me justice. I'm a strapping six-footer, with an iron jaw and often I get mistaken for George Clooney, or Brad Pitt."