Book review: The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway

The Nameless Dead
by Brian McGilloway
Macmillan, 2012
Inspector Ben Devlin #5

Islandmore is a small islet in the river marking the border between Strabane in the north and Lifford in the south of Ireland. In the past, even recently, it was used by those in the south as a burial place for stillborn babies: such is the power of religion in these parts that people believe the church’s dogma that these babies cannot be buried in consecrated ground but are forever consigned to limbo. In an open secret, the little bodies were carefully wrapped by a parent or relative, and quietly buried in a “cillan” – sometimes with a sympathetic priest present to say a few words of prayer.

In the present day, the islet is being excavated because the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains has received a tip-off that a suspected informer is buried there. In the days of Ireland’s Troubles, people took the law into their own hands, killing for a variety of reasons. The relatives of these victims could only surmise what had happened, and have never achieved peace of mind by knowing the fate of the “disappeared”, as they are known – another form of limbo. Hence the commission, which operates an amnesty so that informants can relieve their consciences in the knowledge that they will be immune from prosecution. Ben’s role as a Guard is to maintain a police presence while the excavation team do their work.

The two elements of the story collide when the body that is discovered is not that of a man, but of a baby. Initially assuming that the infant was from the cillan, Ben is soon forced to conclude that this is not the case. He is frustrated because he isn’t allowed to investigate the death under the immunity rules of the commission. Matters become complicated when the relatives of the presumed informer become involved in murder.

The Nameless Dead is a satisfying read on several counts. It is a well-plotted crime novel, with the two themes of the disappeared babies and the missing victims of sectarian violence ebbing and flowing into each other in an increasingly complex web of lies and silence. As before, the action switches between Lifford, Ben’s home territory, and Strabane, home to DI Jim Hendry. It delves into dark aspects of the country’s past – the enduring effects of the Troubles on people today, and the grim brainwashing by the church affecting people’s lives. It has contemporary relevance, with the “ghost” estates littering the countryside playing a significant role in both plots. These estates are collections of houses built during Ireland’s “Celtic tiger” economic boom period, but are now abandoned half-finished. A few poor souls are stuck living in a few of the houses; the others are used for various scams or dubious purposes.

In addition to the plot, however, The Nameless Dead is a human novel, a relative rarity in crime fiction. Ben has been on an emotional see-saw in previous novels in the series, wavering in his emotional commitment to his wife and young children, but by now he is a devoted family man, struggling with being a good parent while both his children go through the usual difficult phases of growing up. He carries his attitudes to his work, with great sympathy for various characters who have suffered loss of family members and with a quietly but firmly rebellious attitude to his superiors and others who try to stop him doing what he thinks is morally right in the name of professional expediency.

The Nameless Dead is an excellent crime novel – the plot is perhaps slightly over-complicated for full believability by the end, but it is a compelling read, not least for the strong characterisation of Ben and his work as well as family concerns. It also conveys a strong sense of the community living in this part of Ireland as people struggle with the shadows of the past as well as the effects of the economic mess of the present. Although this book is the fifth in a series, its plot stands alone from previous novels – though it is informed by events in previous books.

I thank Laura Root for this book. She has recently reviewed it for Euro Crime (click for review).

Other reviews of The Nameless Dead: Bookgeeks (Mike Stafford) and The Irish Independent, which calls it “a taut and beautifully written mystery story deeply rooted in the uneasy, claustrophobic border counties of Northern Ireland where on a daily basis the troubled past impinges on the present.”

My reviews of the author’s earlier books: Borderlands (#1) – an exceptionally strong debut novel – Gallows Lane (#2), Bleed a River Deep (#3) and The Rising (#4). The author has also written a standalone (so far) novel, Little Girl Lost.

The theme of “ghost estates” in Ireland is also superbly treated in the latest novel by Tana French, Broken Harbour.