Over the last weeks, I’ve been reading Irish-Australian writer Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series and am entranced by the acuity of his observations; the blinking humanity revealed when the lights go up. The feeling was similar over ten years ago when I first read James Lee Burke. With more than twenty so far in his Robicheaux series, Burke’s lyrical prose continues to distil what it is to be human—the flaws and vanities, petty obsessions and manifestations of love. In these writers’ hands, crime lies where the fragile membrane between coping and not breaks; where a civilisation’s codes of behaviour constructed and defended to protect both the weak and the powerful are breached. Crime is in the cracks. But that’s how the light gets in, too.
It is a seductive paradox. Both Dave Robicheaux and Sean Duffy embody the complexity of a life as the individual wrestles with themselves and their place in the world. McKinty and Burke are both skilled in revealing the overlap, the imprecision in the reckoning of good and bad. Robicheaux and Duffy are both burdened by a sense of responsibility that they find overwhelming at times. Both break sometimes and lash out. They know they’ve lost it but containing the accumulated rage and frustration becomes impossible. If they see themselves as some force for good, standing between the players and the victims, it is not hubris but rather a weary reckoning that they might have held off the chaos for just another day.
With an intelligence that precludes more than a nod to conformity, neither holds protocols in high regard. Working in rule-bound bureaucracies that snuff out distinguishing behaviour, no matter what it yields, this can be risky. Both serve petty masters: Dave Robicheaux as a sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia parish, Louisiana and Sean Duffy as a detective inspector at Carrick Police Station, Northern Ireland. The local station, the parish office is their domain, for better or worse. The FBI (Fart, Barf and Itch) and MI5 are staffed by political operatives whose chief concern is fallout for stakeholders in the bigger picture. Where they collide, Robicheaux and Duffy are warned off: their cases mere distraction, resolution neither here nor there. Pity about the dead, the preyed upon. Though both men know they are worth more, they despise the kowtowing, the mediocrity, the concessions that are requisite for promotion.
Robicheaux’s eternal struggle is with corrupt power and the damage wrought by blinkered excess and privilege. Whether they be mobsters, or corporates, or old money, these interchangeable rich, white folk exploit and discard Louisiana’s Cajun, black and Catholic minorities. Burke writes of the fruit pickers, the wheat harvesters, and the unrepentant IWW unionists who try to organise them and who are crucified for their efforts. McKinty’s Duffy is a Catholic, serving in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force with the highest mortality rate of any in the Western world. In a prod world, being a Catholic peeler is a death sentence. Yet he stays.
‘Maybe I’m not a great detective, maybe I’m not even a good detective, but I am fucking persistent. And I am going to find out how Ek did it and I’m going to bring the bastard down for it. The UK government might not like it, the Irish government might not like it, but if I can make a case, the RUC will support me…Cops everywhere love nicking villains’. (Rain Dogs, 2015).
While Burke’s novels have few markers linking events to their time, McKinty’s 1980s Northern Ireland evokes my teens in a different British outpost: I remember the Falk Off t-shirts, the miners’ strike on the BBC World Service, the Royal Family being so modern with the redheaded commoner, and the music: ‘The driver had on Radio 1, which was giving us Kylie Minogue’’ ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. Within a few seconds Miss Minogue’s sunny Antipodean vocals and the chirpy lyrics had brought out my dark, misanthropic side…’
History is a restive participant in both series. Reminders of slavery’s dehumanising effects are throughout Burke’s Louisiana—that slaves dug and fired the clay bricks of a plantation home, the rage and madness of their descendants whose lives are blighted by alcoholism and violence. In Ireland in 1985, the riots, roadblocks, burning buses, fires mark just another day in the sectarian war (McKinty, Gun Street Girl, 2015). The bitterness of this centuries-old dispute has dug so deep, there is no turning. When the Anglo–Irish Agreement is struck, the extremists go to town: “‘In a normal country this bold attempt to seize the middle ground would be met with polite agreement by all sides of the political divide… ‘But not here’” (Rain Dogs, 2015). Less poetic than Burke, McKinty’s writing is bleakly funny.
Black humour to go with Duffy’s black jeans and DMs.
That other signpost, the environment, is rendered with extraordinary deftness by both writers. The rain, the snow, fog and wind are more than mere weather—they become characters. Half-frozen Atlantic rainlashes Ireland’s citizens with apocalyptic fury. It is ‘cold cleansing,’ ‘elemental’, ‘a biblical scourge’. Louisiana’s sky sheds fat drops, the heat intense then ‘suddenly cool and thick with the sulphurous smell of ozone.’ The ground barely contains the rising, swelling mass; the waters of the Atchafalaya Basin and its marshes and swamps encroach on the towns; the dead are buried above ground in stone vaults to not be washed away. The transience of humanity, when all’s said and done.
But Dave Robicheaux believes in love, in redemption, a time ‘where we would witness once again the unfinished story of ourselves.’ (Cadillac Jukebox, 1996). Sean Duffy is less optimistic. ‘I thought I could make a difference… Ten years ago … Now I realise that one man can do very little.’ On riot duty, the ‘weens’ throw stones and half-bricks but Duffy anticipates the day when they are making Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs. Still, his very presence, albeit reluctant and dour, is hopeful. What else is there?
‘Crime writing’ is never about the crime. Not the good stuff anyway. There is such a thing as society (sorry, Margaret Thatcher) and though broken, it is not beyond repair. Read McKinty and Burke for the elegance of their prose and the light that filters through the cracks.
First published in Newtown Review of Books