Book review: The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway

The Troubles in Northern Ireland have rarely proved an attractive proposition for novelists, and Derry author and teacher Brian McGilloway’s ‘no frills’ crime thriller series set in the notoriously dangerous Borderlands is as dark as one would expect.

Dead babies, the terrible grief of families whose murdered loved ones became the Disappeared and the lasting legacy of the province’s violent divisions cast a brooding and sorrowful shadow over the latest outing for Inspector Ben Devlin in a taut, self-consciously social and political murder mystery.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that the shadows cast are too long and too overpowering ... McGilloway’s elegant, almost elegiac, writing and his humane, sensitive Garda detective raise The Nameless Dead from a gloomy reflection on Northern Ireland’s past to a poignant, perfectly-pitched crime story which counterbalances fictional drama with factual history.

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This is our fifth case with Devlin, the family man copper whose private life is dominated by his children’s teenage angst rather than any stereotypical battle with the demon drink, a bad gambling habit or skeletons rattling around in his closet.

Respectable, compassionate and doggedly determined in the face of obstructive senior officers, the maverick Devlin always steers a moral course in his pursuit of fairness, justice and the truth.

His patch is on the southern side of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and here we find him working alongside the north-based Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, an organisation set up to try to find the bodies of the Disappeared, those people killed and secretly buried in the Borderlands during the early years of the Troubles.

The team is looking for the body of local man Declan Cleary who was reported missing by his pregnant girlfriend Mary Harte in 1976. There were rumours at the time that he had been targeted as an informer who gave information to the police about IRA activities.

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Instead, the dig uncovers the skeleton of a disabled baby in what is believed to be a 19th century ‘cillin,’ an unconsecrated burial place once used for unbaptised infants, but it doesn’t look like this one died from natural causes.

The Commission’s remit does not allow criminal prosecutions from any evidence they uncover and there can only be limited forensic examination of any remains found. Their role is simply to recover the bodies and give families the opportunity to bury their dead.

Devlin is unconvinced that this applies to the body of the little girl and while he is reluctant to fan the flames of the area’s past, he cannot let a suspected murderer go unpunished and sets out to discover the truth.

But now the secret is out, more deaths follow. Devlin must trust his conscience, even when that puts those closest to him at terrible risk...

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McGilloway’s uncompromising story is a subtle exploration of the notion of ‘limbo’ – babies abandoned in makeshift graves because the Catholic Church deemed them ‘unblessed,’ the edgy no-man’s-land between North and South and the despair of those who cannot find closure for their missing loved ones.

The Nameless Dead also forces those of us at a distance from the Troubles to re-evaluate our concept of ‘peace’ and to recognise that the people who lived through the hostilities cannot easily draw a line under events that have left so many psychological scars.

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)

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