'All the best coppers are, Seàn. It's what makes us different from our friends across the water - no offence, Constable Finch. The Irish are unafraid to sentimentalise the hopeless cases, the lost causes, the young dead whores of the world. The English save their tears for the King. And their dogs.'" (422)
And that's the nut of Kevin McCarthy's Peeler (Mercier Press, 2010) - the Irish are different from the English, but that sentimentalizing can get you into trouble. Gosh I liked this story a lot more than I expected. Regular readers will know of my inability to get going with the much-heralded Irish crime genre. These books win awards and get a lot of airtime in the blogosphere. But so far, I've found them just depressing or violent or cliched or some combination thereof. And I readily confess that a couple of chapters into Peeler, I was ready to give up again - more violence and sadness. I'm not sure why I kept going, but I'm glad I did.
Now, Irish history is complicated, even if it is mostly a story of one failed attempt at independence or at least assertion of nationalism after another. It gets particularly tricky in the 20th c., when independence from Great Britain is won by much of the isle, but then a civil war breaks out, and of course you know how things go in Northern Ireland until pretty darn recently. Peeler takes place around 1920, so not long after World War I, and pre-Independence, but deep into the War for Independence. Our Survivor (this is one story where the protagonist is indeed a good guy, but doesn't feel so much like a hero as someone who is just trying to stay alive), Sean O'Keefe, is a veteran (saw service in the Dardanelles, wounded) and a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, which is the local police force and as such seen as an agent of the hated British crown. Hated by most that is, but not by all, especially not by those who have done well under British rule. The RIC, colloquially known as Peelers (the modern police force created under Sir Robert Peel, 19th c. British Home Secretary and PM) are actually Irish, and really only responsible for maintaining local law and order but their reluctant connection to Auxiliaries and Black and Tans (both paramilitary or just thuggish British forces sent to Ireland purely to subdue rebels) makes them targets of the IRA anyway. The premise of this story is straightforward: a woman is found brutally murdered and mutilated, and tarred as a traitor. Looks like standard operating procedure for the IRA, but while this is a time when informers are punished by torture or worse, the Republicans aren't usually know to target women, and there are details to the case that are, well, unusual for the IRA MO. O'Keefe has to investigate the crime, and is under pressure to identify an IRA killer, even if the evidence does not point that way. At the same time, the IRA launch their own investigation, since they don't want to be saddled with it, either. More violence ensues - predictably, but somehow hauntingly as well.
Descriptions of Peeler suggest that the parallel investigations are more important to the story than they presented to me. While there are some interesting scenes detailing the inner workings of the IRA, this story really gained depth when it sought to navigate the delicate balance O'Keefe has to maintain between his job as a cop, his nationalist sentiments as an Irishman, his loathing of violence but willingness to deploy it when necessary, and his general disgust at the behavior of the pro-British factions. The IRA thread of the investigation really only gains traction when it bumps up against, and must reluctantly involve, O'Keefe. Even in this most black-and-white of conflicts, there are grey areas. The nuanced exploration of moral ambiguities is what really makes this story stand out.
The characters are not shockingly original, but they are written with an eye to individualism and the ones you should like, you do, because they are warm, or smart, or just nice like Irish people. I didn't quite suss out the perp until it was practically announced - partly because it was just the teeniest stretch, but more because there are some excellent diversions as the investigation unfolds.
There's a lot of rain - this is Ireland - and tea and whiskey - ditto.
The action of Peeler unfolds over the course of a week in late November, early December, 1920. This is significant because Cork city center was burned just a few days later by Black and Tans, in reprisal for, well, you know. I assume the author picked the dates for this reason, but I wouldn't have known had I not been digging around for a bit of background on the armed conflict in this area. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed in this conflagration, but except for one heart attack, the only deaths were combatants. That's kind of amazing, but not surprising, in a time and place where pretty much everyone was a combatant.