Book review: Turncoat by Anthony J Quinn

I’ve stayed in Ireland for another book with Anthony J Quinn’s novel Turncoat. Cold, dreary, claustrophobic — good ingredients for a thriller. Turncoat is set in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement that ended most of the violence of the Troubles in Ireland, and was a major step forward in the peace process. Quinn plays with traditional crime fictions forms — the opening is like a shoot ‘em up James Bond adventure that morphs into a mind bending locked room mystery before spinning around again with a noir like twist.

He felt hollow inside, unsure of anything, least of all his own thoughts and feelings, stumbling over his shadow, the ghost of a lonely detective who had somehow escaped his own execution.

Desmond Maguire is a catholic detective in the Northern Ireland police force. When he is framed by either the IRA or the republicans his tenuous grip on control fractures, helped along by his tendency to drink way too much — personal conflict plus in this story. He is the sole survivor of an ambush and seen as a second class citizen by his police peers and a turncoat in his own community.

The guts of the novel has a surreal and almost locked room mystery feel to it. Maguire flees on an involuntary pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Donegal after receiving a postcard that inspires him to go there believing he will find the answer to who framed him. The traditional Lough Derg three day pilgrimage only allows participants one meal of black tea or coffee, dry toast, oat cakes and water, and deprives them of sleep and footwear as they walk around the island in prayer. The longer Maguire is on the island the more paranoid he becomes.

During the worst days of the Troubles, Belfast kept its traitors out of sight, like the homeless drunks who froze to death in back alleyways, or the suicides who thew themselves off bridges into the dank Lagan waters. The bodies of spies and informers were usually transported to the border and left in ditches or covered in bin bags where they no longer posed a risk to anyone, and their deaths might not seem so terrible or pitiable.

The island is analogous to a miserable, claustrophobic locked room. The story plays with reality, showing Maguire’s undoing facilitated by the deprivations of the pilgrimage, excessive consumption of illicit alcohol, the other pilgrims fascination with him, and his anxiety that someone on the island is after him. He can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction — even in his own mind.

Quinn does a great job of bringing to life the confusion and suspicions that must have existed during those times in Ireland. Themes include religion, corruption, mistrust and betrayal – it is not an easy or light read, but the discomfort is compelling and leaves residual long after it ends.

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