The true border ran between the two forces of law and order, the Garda Siochana and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the two police forces sliding darkly past each other like blips on a radar, separated by the whim of politicians, detectives passing each other in the night, their murmurs breaking the static on their radios, their car lights strobing the hills at night
Anthony J. Quinn’s Undertow is a dark, violent thriller set in the border area around the fictional village of Dreesh, Co. Monaghan, a depressed, post-Celtic Tiger village.
It is the latest in Quinn’s Celcius Daly novels, and sees the morose PSNI detective investigating the death of a garda detective, whose body washes up on the shore of Lough Neagh. Daly’s investigation leads him into a shadowy world of spies and smugglers, thuggish paramilitaries and corrupt policemen – it’s a spy novel and a detective novel and a gritty crime drama, filled with familiar tropes of the Troubles: punishment beatings, paid informers, fuel smugglers, but more than that it’s an examination of the psychological effects of living and working around a border, how two mindsets can live alongside each other, separated by a political partition that is increasingly meaningless.
It is also concerned with the hold that the past has over us. Daly is haunted by the memories of the Troubles, in particular the childhood murder of his mother, and how his meddling had led (allegedly) to the suicide of his superior, RUC Commander Donaldson (these events presumably are dealt with in more detail in previous Celcius Daly novels, but Quinn fills in enough detail here for the new reader to be able to follow).
The novel begins and ends with a killing on the water – Garda Detective Brian Carey’s body is discovered by a fisherman in Lough Neagh. Water – rivers, lakes, bogs – is a recurring image in the novel (Quinn has written in the Irish News how the bleak tract of land on the Tyrone/Monaghan border, ‘a terrain creaking and gurgling with treacherous bogland’ has fed his imagination).
Bog pools play a role in the novel as well. Daly lives in his ancestral home, a crumbling cottage on the shore of Lough Neagh – there is a natural bog pool where he swims, “feeling immersed in the landscape through the primary sense of touch, participating in the patient miracle of the morning, the lifting mist, the shimmering hedgerows, his cottage moated by boggy fields … How far did the water’s depths go? How deep were his own roots? He had entered a different dimension, one perpendicular to his everyday existence as a detective … if he dived headfirst into the pool and opened his eyes wide, what would he see in the shadowy caverns below, what ghosts still slithered in the murk?” (33)
The novel’s main characters are:
Inspector Celcius Daly. The first word used to describe him is ‘disoriented’ and it’s apt: like the hero of most decent crime books, he’s one step behind the action, chasing leads, befuddled. At one point he gets sapped into unconsciousness by a heavy, the way Philip Marlowe often was. He also drinks and is currently living in a caravan on his property while his cottage is being renovated. And rubs his superiors the wrong way.
Tom Morgan. Thuggish ex-IRA man and fuel smuggler who rules over Dreesh. “the smuggling king of Monaghan, known as Red Tom or just Red to his few friends and many enemies … The ceasefire had been the making of him and his criminal empire. In the intervening decade, he had grown wealthy, but also wary and paranoid. His greatest fear was that he would lose the protection of the IRA.”
Morgan is introduced dishing out a vicious punishment beating to a young man who’s been skimming from him.
Morgan has amassed his wealth by spreading it around in secret offshore bank accounts (many in the name of otherwise poor villagers) and by corrupting the local police
He makes a donation to the GAA club, which the club forlornly accepts – there’s even a miserable priest at the ceremony making a thank you speech.
Poverty seemed to have made the parish less sceptical about the reputations of criminals. The church and the football club were deeply mired in debt, and the community no longer cared if their new benefactor’s money stank
Morgan is a man with an eye on the future:
With Brexit looming, the big money is on the border. No one on this island will stand for a hard border with customs posts and high security. Think about it. That would be like asking Germany to build the Iron Curtain again. In a year or two, this place will be awash with financial opportunities
Sergeant Peter McKenna. Garda sergeant in Dreesh, originally from Derry, who has turned a blind eye on Morgan’s activities for years, content to live in a quiet backwater “Daly felt and knew what McKenna was yearning for, living and working in this secretive-looking station festooned with roses … the sergeant was trying to recreate a little corner of peace and contentment, just as Daly had done in his childhood home on the other side of the border”
Jack McKenna – Peter’s brother, who joined the RUC, and who is also involved in the Green and Blue Fishing Club. A photo of the two brothers hangs in Peter’s house: “Daly stared at the photo again – two sons, one dressed in green, the other in blue, standing on opposite sides of history with their father in the middle, wearing an expression that resembled grief or sadness, the face of a man reluctant to influence or show the slightest degree of approval towards either son or their choice of uniform.”
Undertow has a fairly simple plot that is made somewhat needlessly complicated, and what lifts it out of the ordinary is the quality of the prose. I won’t go into the plot for fear of spoilers. Bodies pile up towards the climax. Complicated back-stories and revelations come to light. There are double-crosses.
Fittingly, it ends on the water
… McKenna and Daly stood on the jetty at the edge of the water, staring at the shimmering view. Their minds were exhausted, but their thoughts searched for symmetry, a sense of order from the chaos that had stranded them in a world of criminals and betrayal. They felt as though they were floating as the morning sunlight tilted across the lough surface of ripples and reflections. There was no border anymore, no lines to step over, no barriers to breach, just their thoughts groping in the void and this strange alchemy hanging in the air, as if the border had been transformed into a perpetual looking glass through which they peered with all their concentration, haunted by the reflections of themselves rather than what really lay on the other side