Thursday, December 28, 2023

Adrian McKinty’s Forgotten Early Works

(Editor’s note: This is the third Rap Sheet submission by Northern California resident Peter Handel, who has reviewed and written about crime fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Portland Oregonian, Pages Magazine, Mystery Readers International, and CrimeReads. He previously appraised Peter Swanson’s The Christmas Guest.)

As an inveterate used bookstore browser, and a regular patron of ThriftBooks, I’ve noticed that while Northern Irish author Adrian McKinty has become an established, and now increasingly mainstream novelist (having hit it big with both The Chain and The Island), some of his earlier releases aren’t often found in the usual places. His young-adult series, the Lighthouse Trilogy, is rarely seen, as is his debut work from 1997, Orange Rhymes With Everything.

Much more attention is paid to the standalones mentioned above, as well as to McKinty’s superb series starring Detective Sergeant (later Detective Inspector) Sean Duffy, set largely during “The Troubles” in 1980s Northern Ireland. The latest of the Duffy novels, which takes place in the early ’90s, is titled The Detective Up Late. It came out earlier this year.

The following essay looks at four early McKinty books, which one seldom sees even in a well-stocked used store, or online.

* * *

2009’s Fifty Grand is the rousing story of a Cuban cop (!), told in a first-person narrative by one Detective Mercado, straight from Havana. She’s entered the United States covertly with a small group of unauthorized aliens, lead by a “mule,” but things don’t go so smoothly once they get across the border. Mercado is headed for the state of Colorado, where she hopes to find out who killed her defector father in a hit-and-run accident. And why was he posing as a Mexican pest controller in a rich Hollywood actors’ enclave called Fairview, anyway?

Back to that border crossing, though. A group of men—predators—determine to rob the “illegals” while they are in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, Mercado knows how to fight. One of the predators seemingly overpowers her and plans to rape her, but when he puts down his knife to take his pants off, she leaps to save herself.
His tossed his cartoon-covered boxers and when they were gone he grinned and reached for the knife.

The knife that wasn’t there.

“Huh?” he said.

Watching his brain tick over was like watching a dinosaur step on volcanic glass. Confusion showed between his eyes and before he could say or do anything his own treasonous hunting knife slashed him across the belly.

Maroon venous blood, stomach fluids, coffee. A deep laceration, nothing punctured, but enough to sear his nerve endings and get his attention. He reacted faster than I was expecting. His fist hammered into the ground a few centimeters from my swerving head. I slashed at his face and the serrated blade opened his cheek like a sushi knife into yellowtail.
The situation gets worse, much worse in fact, and our idiotic wannabe rapist is further sliced and diced, until “blood, piss, [and] one of his testicles [rolled] onto the ground.”

Once Mercado reaches the resort town of Fairview, she is forced to acquiesce to a local “boss” and becomes a faceless maid for a service that exploits illegals. The job at least allows her to meet various suspects her journalist brother, Ricky, had sussed out during his earlier mission to identify their father’s killer.

As she surreptitiously probes her few leads, she encounters B-list Hollywood players, fellow illegals scuffling for work, and a cast that would not be complete without a sadistic sheriff and his lackey deputy.

Sheriff Briggs runs the area’s illicit “trade,” and when one of his dealers oversteps the line, he’s beaten with a nightstick, then humiliatingly dressed down. “Our deal,” Briggs declares, “was for cocaine from Mexico and you’ve been dealing ice and meth and pot, bringing it in from fucking Canada. Who do you think you are, amigo? Where do you think you are? Nothing escapes me ... Nothing. I know everything that goes on in this town. Everything you or anybody else tries to do, I fucking know it. Never forget that.” As you would imagine, both “law-enforcement” officials do get theirs in the end.

Fifty Grand is an unusual thriller, and the Cuba-set segments that open and close this novel add much to the arc of its story.

In the noirish Falling Glass (2011), McKinty’s protagonist is an “enforcer” named Killian, someone who has done dirty work for other white-collar criminals, those who like to keep their hands as clean as possible. Here, he’s offered a half-million dollars to take on one last job: Find the missing, often drug-addled ex-wife and two daughters of a wealthy, powerful, and politically connected Irish businessman, Richard Coulter. Included in the mix of quasi-mobsters is Michael Forsythe, who appeared in three previous McKinty novels, beginning with 2003’s Dead I Well May Be. It is Forsythe who becomes part of what is the novel’s key flaw.

Falling Glass is an engrossing but trope-driven story centered around an opportunity to win redemption after an often-ugly past. Killian does indeed find the missing ex, Rachel, as well as her two young children. And, yes, Rachel and Killian fall in love, a love that can’t last. But leave it to McKinty to keep the plot moving at breakneck speed, much of its action taking place in a richly depicted rural Irish setting.

The unexpected fugitives are forced to hide out when Killian learns the reason Rachel had absconded with the kids. That reason isn’t a particularly revelatory shock, however.

A nice twist in the story is Killian’s personal background—he’s “Pavee” or a “tinker.” When the four absconders need a safe place to stay, it’s a tinker camp of caravans, quickly moveable, yet well hidden.

Regular readers of McKinty’s fiction know of his (at times almost excruciating) propensity for having his characters mull, and mull, concepts and beliefs from a wide range of philosophers and archetypal mythological stories. As a graduate of Oxford with a degree in philosophy, the author does indeed know his Schopenhauers, his Irish folklore, and his famous architects—Le Corbusier, anyone?

In this tale, Killian comes across a book about that famous Swiss-French architect, and as he thumbs through it, he begins to … mull. “He didn’t like Le Corbusier,” we’re told. “Le Corbusier didn’t understand human nature. Humans were biophilic. Half a million years of living on the savannah was bound to select for adaptations linked to open plains, grasslands. In his concrete dreamscapes Le Corbusier didn’t allow for any kind of spiritual longing for vistas, for greenery, for other mammal species, for space. Like other twentieth-century social engineers, Corbusier wanted to remake man in his own image.”

And now we return to our regular programming ...

Falling Glass offers some spectacular set-pieces, derring-do escapes, and an exceptionally grisly scene with some chainsaw, uh, human sculpting. No one writes killing like McKinty does. But then there are those disappointing final few pages that feel anticlimactic—for this reader, one of his few missteps.

* * *

Besides his YA Lighthouse Trilogy, in 2011 McKinty published Deviant. With a wonderfully unnerving cover that belies its made-for-teens content, this story, set in Colorado Springs, Colorado, begins with an unknown person in an isolated, venerated Native American setting, preparing to do away with a stray cat in ritualistic fashion. “He poked the bag with his finger,” McKinty writes, “and the cat thrashed weakly against the sides. There was a little fight left in it, but not much.” Just as he’s about to stab the cat and skin it, “He imagined the deliciously pitiful yell … the light dying from the cat’s eyes, the smell of fear and intestinal gases … his spine tingled, his attention wandered, his grip slackened, the cat seized its opportunity.” It dashes off, leaving its would-be slayer behind, stung by his failure.

Cut now to teenager Danny Lopez, who has just arrived in Colorado Springs from Las Vegas with his Native mother, Juanita, and a stepfather he loathes. Mom has taken an important job managing a new casino, and Danny will be attending a specialized school, where the students and teachers wear white gloves, and there is no talking on campus except by the instructors in class.

This story supplies teenage lust—unrequited, of course; a mega-church pretty much everyone in the city attends; a creepy school principal; and a long boulevard of various prisons—keep that economy humming. Amid it all, Danny feels like a fish out of a Vegas fountain.

As word ricochets through Colorado Springs about missing felines, and cats found dead, Danny and a group of his fellow students from the school resolve to find out what’s going on.

Some of the dialogue here feels dated and clunky, but as a former high school teacher himself, McKinty understands the social milieu well. There’s good suspense in these pages, and enjoyable characters abound; but the solution to the mystery at hand is fairly easy to guess. Deviant is ultimately best read as a parable of religious extremism. Set in a hotbed of evangelical true believers, the unthinking allegiance to a rigid conformism is the real terror in the tale.

McKinty’s most unusual novel is surely 2014’s The Sun Is God. Taking place in a German-colonized part of New Guinea, circa 1906, the story is based on largely true events. A former British military policeman, Will Pryor, is tasked with visiting a cult-like island community inhabited by a small group of Germans. A man has died there, ostensibly from malaria, but an autopsy on the mainland finds evidence of his having drowned. It’s up to Will to figure out what really happened.

“They call themselves the Sonnenoden,” a German emissary, Herr Kessler, says. “Sun Worshippers. They believe that nudity and the eating of coconuts will give them immortality.”

“Coconuts?” exclaims Will.

“The fruit that grows closest to the sun. [The cult’s leader, August Englehardt] believes that worshiping the sun and eating only coconuts purifies the body of ‘the foul pollutants and excesses of modern twentieth-century life.’ Free from these toxins apparently humans can live an unlimited lifespan in paradise. … They call themselves Cocovores, as the coconut is considered to be the only pure food.”

In a 2014 Irish Times interview with Declan Burke, McKinty talked about why he undertook such an offbeat historical novel. “Mostly it was because I was so excited by the story,” said McKinty. “It was a murder case that took place in a German nudist religious cult—and no one has told this story? But, to be honest, I was a bit fed up about reading background material about Northern Ireland in the 1980s, because you know what they’re all going to say. And it was really fun to look at another part of the world, at a different time. In The Sun Is God Will Prior's previous experience of horrific violence has dulled his humanity to the point where he is nowhere as smart, noble or interested in justice as the conventional detective in a crime novel should be.

“One of the things I liked about Will Prior—and this probably won’t be popular at all—is that he doesn’t actually solve the crime,” McKinty added. “He gets it all wrong. We’ve seen that kind of thing before, many times, but it’s always done for comedic effect. But I thought, what about doing it when it’s not for comedic effect? He’s just wrong. Even today, nobody knows the truth about Kabakon Island. I’ve done a lot of research into it, and no one actually knows the answer. It probably was a murder, but no one knows for sure, or who did it, or why. You can only speculate on what happened.” (By the way, that Irish Times piece features a blurry photo of the real Englehardt.)

The first third of The Sun Is God is rather pokey, but once Will arrives on the island, the plot thickens like the heroin-spiked arak the cult followers enjoy—and which certainly keeps them docilely stoned. “From Bayer,” says an islander. “It is a kind of morphine but without morphine’s unfortunate addictive qualities. A remarkable medicine.”

“After a couple pints of this joy-juice,” Will observes, “I’m surprised anyone can walk to their huts.”

In addition to Englehardt, we are also given here another real-life figure, young travel writer Bessie Pullen-Burry. She accompanies Will and a German officer, Klaus Kessler, to the community. She goes all in with the cultists until she sees through the façade of sun and nudity, and plays a key role in the exhilarating finale.

Well worth its occasional slog, The Sun Is God remains the quirkiest book McKinty has given his readers so far.


E. Ellis said...

The writing career of Adrian McKinty is one of the most interesting tales around and needs to be told more loudly.

There is something seriously wrong with the publishing industry when a writer with skills like him has to struggle and almost quits writing fiction while driving an Uber to make ends meet.

Also, in one of his interviews regarding his Sean Duffy series doing poorly in the US, one wise person suggested to him his Duffy books would sell if he had a US setting for Duffy. Can one imagine meeting with a supposed publishing expert that suggested such a thing?

Anonymous said...

Great article! Thank you!!