Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

How a love affair with Berlin and a tale from Belfast's past led to the creation of my own take on Rebus

By Henry McDonald

I first went to Berlin in 1981 as a callow young communist, who went behind the Iron Curtain to work at an international youth camp during the summer of the hunger strike back home. Four years later, I returned, guiltily, to stay for a while in West Berlin, the lines of the Sex Pistols' Holidays In The Sun rattling around my brain. Punk and Marxist-Leninism were pulling me in different directions, like the two souls in Faust's breast.

Marx, Engels, Jurgen Sparwasser, Johnny Rotten, a Vienese Jewish emigre turned British publisher, my auntie Peggy and my paternal grandfather after whom I am named: these were the main forces that prompted me to set my first novel in a 21st-century Berlin haunted by the ghosts of the previous one.

The Swinging Detective was first conceived in the winter of 2005 while I was living in Berlin, working on a European journalist exchange programme.

I wrote the novel through 2006 and 2007 as I was in Germany for the World Cup. Indeed Germany (or rather West Germany) was the first World Cup I remember as a kid in 1974 and I remember cheering on Jurgen Sparwasser when he scored the winning goal for East Germany against the West.

After finishing the book I gave it to my agent. He loved the novel, but 14 rejection slips later I sort of gave up.

But we both always believed in the story - and in 2015 Gibson Square publishers took a punt on the book and here we are.

Berlin has fascinated me since I first saw The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and those first grainy shots of the Wall. That fascination was enhanced by David Bowie's Berlin trilogy - Low, Heroes, Lodger. Yet there is a also piece of my Belfast hometown in this book, marking the life of my main character.

Martin Peters is my Rebus. He is a complex, haunted, driven man - a former British Army spy, who operated both in Belfast and Berlin during the Cold War.

The pivotal moment of his career was an incident based on a true life experience from 1989. Back then, I covered the shooting of a UVF gunman who was killed by the undercover army unit (the Force Research Unit) just minutes after he had killed a Catholic man in Ardoyne.

I was a cub reporter with the Irish News and was on call that weekend when the shooting happened. The UVF killer was probably executed by the Army - and his killer was in all likelihood a female soldier who had the nickname "the Angel of Death".

This killing stuck in my memory, as did another story I heard of a gunman who, in the early-1970s, shot a woman dead by mistake during an attack on troops in Belfast.

I learned of this many years later, after hearing he had walked into a police station and confessed to what he had done. He had been haunted by the memory until finally something cracked.

I decided to synthesise these two incidents and so (without giving too much away) I had Peters kill a female loyalist assassin and then have her memory follow him down the through the decades - to Berlin, where he is now a detective.

During a 30-year career in journalism, you absorb so many things.

Snippets of conversation and fascinating anecdotes lodge somewhere in the dark corners of your memory bank. Scenes of death and destruction that you have reported on replay in your brain - and sometimes even in your dreams.

The book is dedicated to the memory of my mother and father, who passed away in 2011. Yet, when I finished the final draft, I also thought of my grandfather - Henry McDonald - whose sole encounter with Germans was when several U-boat torpedoes sunk his ship in the Battle of the Atlantic back in 1943, consigning him to a watery grave.

I am happy to say my encounters with modern Germans have been more benign and that this novel is also in a way a tribute to their united, multicultural, tolerant capital city and general liberal society.

  • The Swinging Detective is published by Gibson Square, £8.99

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph