The Cold Cold Ground is a police procedural set in the chaos of 1981 Belfast, Northern Ireland. A man is found dead in his car : he has been shot and his hand cut off. Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, who has just moved to the area and taken up a new post at Carrickfergus CID, is given the case, with two colleagues to help. Attending the autopsy, Duffy is embarrassed to be told by the pathologist, Laura Cathcart, that the hand does not belong to the victim. She also provides him with some more evidence that indicates that the killing is not a straightforward impulsive deed or a political execution.
Duffy and colleagues soon track down a second victim, whose corpse contains similar clues in addition to the first victim’s hand. Apparently, there has never been a serial killer in Ireland because, it is said, anyone of that mindset can easily find an occupation working for the IRA, the UVF,or other political faction. The next 200 pages follow Duffy’s attempts to investigate the crime against a background of violence. Bobby Sands, the Maze hunger striker, has just died so there are riots and strikes in the city, not to mention terrorist attacks. Duffy and his colleagues are attacked when they try to follow up leads in Belfast’s “no go” areas, and they are hampered by the fact that homosexual acts are illegal as well as abhorred by IRA and UVF alike – nobody is interested in helping the police investigate an apparent homosexual crime.
Brennan, Duffy’s boss, suddenly hands over to him another case: that of a missing woman called Lucy Moore. Lucy is the ex-wife of another Maze prisoner who has just begun to participate in the mass hunger strike to force the British government to give the men what they regard as their basic human rights. Lucy vanished a few months ago on a pre-Christmas shopping trip. When her family began receiving postcards from her saying that she was well, the police lost interest, but the case was not closed. It isn’t long before Duffy hears that a woman’s body has been found hanging in some nearby woods.
For 200 pages, this novel is an assured police procedural replete with convincing period details, really making the reader see and feel what it must have been like trying to maintain law and order under such impossible and dangerous circumstances. Not only are there so many political factions, but Special Branch and MI5 are involved, making it hard for Duffy and colleagues to obtain the background information they need about their suspects and witnesses. Duffy becomes obsessed with the clues that the presumed serial killer has left and continues to send, as well as being convinced in his mind that the Lucy case is somehow connected. The author weaves a completely believable universe, with real-life figures such as Gerry Adams and Margaret Thatcher making brief appearances, and some heartbreaking moments – for example the book is set just after the announcement that De Lorean is moving to the city, bringing hope of prosperity. In one of many nice touches, Duffy and Laura are both Catholics – very much a minority in a mainly Protestant city. As far as Duffy is concerned, this fact allows the author to present telling vignettes of ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in a hopeless situation – the scenes in Duffy’s street are wryly amusing as well as useful for the developing plot.
The last 100 pages of the book are less successful. Frustrated by his lack of progress, as well as having been officially removed from the investigation(s), Duffy goes for the all-out approach of accusing everybody of everything, presumably to spark some response. The result is an alternating mixture of approvingly described violence (harking back to the opening passage) and great tracts of exposition from one character to another which have a deadening effect. Duffy himself is not a hugely likeable character because of his ego (he often “impresses” us with his university education) and his inevitable 100 per cent success rate with women, despite his diet of alcohol, questionable length of time he wears the same T-shirt, and habit of falling asleep in a stupor on the floor (or once, in a much worse place). He’s also another one of those fictional characters who is always namechecking music recordings. But he does have some redeeming features to keep the reader interested in him, notably his refusal to join in the general Protestant/Catholic knee-jerk divide that is regularly expressed to him in one way or another. I enjoyed reading The Cold Cold Ground, and look forward to the next in the series.
I received this novel via the Amazon Vine programme.