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Identity crisis

Derry author Brian McGilloway told David Hennessy about how he got to honour his late and ‘great’ father in his most recent book, how the people of Northern Ireland have been ignored throughout the whole Brexit debate and discussion and why his success is down to the supportive Irish crime writing community he is part of.

For Derry author Brian McGilloway, his most recent book was more personal than any of the ones that went before it as he paid tribute to a late parent.

Blood Ties is the latest in the detective Ben Devlin series and the detective’s first outing since 2012’s The Nameless Dead.

The series started in 2007 with Borderlands which was shortlisted for a Crime Writers’ Association Dagger award for a debut novel.

The Strabane-based English teacher is also known for his series featuring the PSNI public protection officer Lucy Black.

The first of that series, Little Girl Lost, became a New York Times and UK No.1 bestseller. In addition to being shortlisted for a CWA Dagger and the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.

McGilloway has recently been longlisted for the latter again for his preceding book The Last Crossing.

Blood Ties sees Ben Devlin worry about his college going daughter and having to face the imminent death of his father. Both mirror the preoccupations of the author. His father died in recent years and his oldest son should be going on to further education in the coming year.

Brian told The Irish World: “Writing about Devlin and his dad was quite comforting in  a strange way to be able to reflect a bit on my own father and my relationship with him.

“Because he was great and you kind of want everyone to know. You want other people to know how great your dad was and I got a chance to do that and I am very lucky. It was a real privilege. Not everyone gets to do that.

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“It was three years ago this summer that he died and in a way, we were really lucky. My Dad was in hospital for about six weeks before he died and we were there with him a lot of the time and particularly in his last weeks. We were there pretty much all the time between myself, my sisters, my brothers and my mum.

“We were really lucky to get that time with him and to be able to say the things we wanted to say.

“When he died we were saying, ‘God, if only we had got a bit more time…’

“And then looking at lockdown last year, it was nearly lucky that he died when he did because if it had been now, we wouldn’t have been able to get in near him, we wouldn’t be able to see him.

“That must have been horrific and I just felt really, really sorry for anyone that had to go through that and not get that opportunity to see and feel the person that they loved.

“Devlin has always been the character who is closest to me in terms of the kind of concerns. With the first book I was just married and my wife was expecting our first and in the first book, his kids are very young and he’s just working out how to be a father and a good husband.

“This book now his kids have gone to university and my oldest son is hopefully going to university next year.

“Devlin has always been a bit of a punchbag and psychiatrist for me. He’s a way I’m able to work out how I feel about things. Writing for me is very much that working out how I think and how I feel about things.

“I don’t sit down and go, ‘Right, I have a message that I want to write here’. I sit down and create a situation and go, ‘Right, how would I feel about this? How would I react in this situation?’

“And because of the story with Devlin’s dad, I said at the beginning that his dad had died and that would tie in with the inevitability of how the story was going to end.“

Set in the early part of 2020, the reader knows that the virus is coming giving it an almost doomsday feel as the reader knows more than the characters what they are headed for.

“To be honest when I started it I wasn’t consciously going to set it in 2020 with Covid. The book was very much about identity and how we see ourselves and it kind of made sense then because with Covid a lot of those relationships had been interrupted.

“Last year someone asked me would I introduce Covid into a story. I said, ‘No, why would I?’ Because we all lived through it.

“But fairly early on I kind of felt, ‘I’m going to set it then’. But I suppose it was a bit of a cheat in a way in that. I thought if I set it just before Covid hit, there was that sense of inevitability. Anyone who reads it will know what’s coming.”

The problems and issues of Brexit are also present through the book. Brian has been angered by how the whole Northern Ireland issues has been handled and how the people of the province have been ignored all along.

“There’s a whole thing now at the minute about the protocol and there’s a lot of instability and violence in the streets.

“There was an element of in some parts of media, ‘How did nobody see this coming?’

“People over here were saying this five, six years ago.

“As soon as the whole debate started, as soon as Brexit was first mentioned people here were the only people with recent experience of living with a land border.

“People here voted very strongly against Brexit and yet that voice was kind of ignored and there’s a real frustration.

“I remember there was a real sense of, ‘No one is listening to what the impact is going to be here’.

“You feel like the people who had the most recent experience of living on a border were totally ignored even in the debate of it. There was such a focus on blue passports, there was no awareness of the impact it was going to have.

“I know you see stories about threatening violence, it has nothing to do with violence at all.

“The Good Friday Agreement works because it gave people an opportunity to not have to take sides and it worked because it recognised if you feel Irish, that’s fine. If you feel British, that’s fine. If you feel neither, that’s fine. If you want to identify as Northern Irish, that’s fine.

“You have a choice over your own identity and again it fitted this book because the book is very much about identity.

“One of the things that Brexit did instantly was it made people take sides again. You had to decide again: How do you identify? Which side of the border? Which side are you going to pick?

“Forcing people to pick sides never works in Northern Irish politics or in Irish politics. It’s just dangerous and I think a lot of the work that was done with the peace process and people being able to relax a little bit in terms of that idea about identity, a lot of that was undone.”

And Brian’s previous book The last Crossing was just as prescient. Partly inspired by the search for ‘the Disappeared’, the book centres on three lives that were forever changed by one terrible incident during the Troubles. The story reunites three Irish characters involved in an execution-style murder in Scotland during the Troubles.

“It was a story that I had had in my head for quite a while and I couldn’t quite work out how to tell it.

“The focus was going to very much be on the consequences of violence and how the past has impacted on the present.

“The person I had spoken to was really enthusiastic about it but they came back very quickly and said, ‘Nobody is interested in Northern Irish stories’. If you literally mention to someone that there’s a Troubles element, they’re like, ‘No, no, no audience for that’.

“A lot of the stuff is stuff that was happening when I was growing up or things that have happened to people that I was growing up with.

“I can understand why so many Northern Irish writers pick crime, because it’s the perfect vehicle for analysing Northern Ireland.

“A crime novel always begins at the end of something. It begins at the end of someone’s life. While the narrative is moving forwards, the detective trying to solve the crime is constantly looking backwards to work out how we got to the opening page of the book.

“I kind of wanted to take that a step further with The Last Crossing. It is that idea of having to look backwards in order to be able to move forwards.”

Brian’s well known characters enforce the law on different sides of the border. Some have asked about him uniting them in one tale.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Senator George Mitchell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair after signing the Good Friday Agreement.

“I remember when I started writing the Devlin books, I had this sense in my head that there wouldn’t have been a huge amount of interaction between the police in the north and the police in the south, the guards.

“Then when I started researching, I remember chatting to a guard who told me this story about fishing nets. That the police in the north and the guards in the south would meet up once a month and go for dinner on the proceeds of illegal fishing nets that they had confiscated. That was going on for years.

“While in the press there’s this idea of everybody taking sides here and that just wasn’t the case.

“Post- Good Friday because there was that sense of relaxation of the need to take sides and the need to have an identity, everybody was just getting on with things.

“I think nobody is particularly happy about the sense that we’re moving backwards again and there has been a sense over the last six months or so that politically  we have been moving backwards.

“I don’t know if that necessarily reflects the experience of a lot of people on the street. My friendships with people haven’t changed because of Brexit or because of their views on Brexit.

“(New DUP leader) Edwin Poots made a comment the other day about relationships between Northern Ireland and the south have never been worse. The response on social media was, ‘That’s simply not true’. The relationship between the one party and the south might not be good but that’s not a reflection on how the general mood is.

“Very clearly there were areas in Northern Ireland where people and communities felt that they were left behind and maybe felt that the promises that were made in terms of what prosperity would bring were never delivered on and that is something that does need to be dealt with.

“I think in order for the whole community to move on, every part of the community needs to feel that things have improved for it. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case across the board.”

The Last Crossing was recently longlisted for the prestigious Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.

Brian was not the only Irish author to make the list as Jane Casey, Lucy Foley, Liz Nugent and Steve Cavanagh also made it.

Irish crime writing is really coming into its own and Brian credits the supportive community of writers that are involved in it with the success of The Last Crossing.

“It’s a book that has taught me how grateful I should be for the support. A lot of what has happened to this book has happened because of the support of other crime writers. Even when I wrote it, I wasn’t 100% sure about whether or not it was working.

“Adrian McKinty and Steve Cavanagh were some of the first people to read it and were really positive and encouraging.

“Adrian said when I sent it to him, ‘It might be better if you took a step back from the Northern Irish thing’. And then he came back and said, ‘Ignore that, I’ve just read it. Couldn’t have been set anywhere else’.

“When the book came out a lot of other crime writers like Jane Casey and Liz Nugent really got behind it. I think the reason it got another life as a paperback is because it got such support from the crime writing community and a lot of them are now up for the Theakstons. It’s lovely to be in their company but I’m also very, very grateful because I think the book possibly wouldn’t have got the chance that it got had it not been for those voices cheering it along as well.

“We’re not really competing. It’s not like crime readers read one book a year.

“To be honest, that’s one of the really nice things about the crime writing community. Everyone  is very supportive of each other.”

Blood Ties is out now on Constable.

The Last Crossing is out on Little, Brown Book Group, Constable.

For more information, click here.

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