Tuesday, May 30, 2023

"A good final outing": BACK HOME IN DERRY review

BACK HOME IN DERRY by David McGill (Silver Owl Publishing, 2022)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

After six Dan Delaney mysteries following a Kiwi family through the 20th century, the story comes full circle during the fragile beginnings of the 1995 Northern Irish ceasefire. The Delaney family are touring Ireland in search of their relations connected to a convict. In the process they confront ancient enmities. Dan is now 79, which is also the age of the author.

In County Cork car theft and a clumsy horse frustrate, but Dan likes the Clonakilty black pudding and an IRA song about Derry. In Dublin his daughter is almost killed in a grenade attack outside the Abbey Theatre. In Belfast he is caught up in violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics. His mother’s wrong-side-of-the-blanket relations in Derry bequeath disinheritance hassles and an old foe aims to make them terminal.

David McGill draws on his diaries of travel around Ireland and a journalistic assignment in the Falls Road, Belfast, at the 1970 flashpoint of the Troubles. He throws in his abiding love for Irish folk music and literature, and Guinness.

Dan Delaney’s first adventure was as a young cop placed on assignment on Somes Island in 1935 (The Death Ray Debacle, 2015). Since then, we have read of him in incidents every decade. In Back home in Derry, it is the mid-1990s, Dan is nearing 80, and he is reluctantly travelling around Ireland with Jas, his wife. Dan would rather be at home in New Zealand, safe with his family around him. The story starts in small rural villages in Ireland, and unfolds in Dublin, Belfast, and the walled Londonderry.

Dan’s world is closing in; he struggles to see through his graduated lenses, he hears through the squeal of his hearing aids, or the roar of his tinnitus, and he finds most of what is going on around him a puzzle. Dan and Jas’ spend some quiet days when there is an incident with their car, and they hire a “gypsy caravan” (from a village where Roma are not “permitted within village boundaries”). Jas takes photos of the countryside flowers as they amble along, Dan wishes he was at home, thinking “he had nothing in common with the place his ancestors fled”. Dan is increasingly living in his past, having nightmares, and worrying. One evening in a village pub they listen to a local band singing songs of rebellion. Dan finds himself inexplicably in tears when they sing the Bobby Sands poem, Back home in Derry.

After these “idyllically uneventful days”, Dan and Jas are dramatically embroiled in violence in Dublin. As their daughter, Ali, might have been the target, Dan and Jas are keen to work out who is behind the attack. A delicate job during the shaky ceasefire recently agreed between sectarian factions. Ali is a forensic linguistics expert and was meeting them in Dublin to help Jas research the genealogy of Dan’s Irish forebears. In the violent attack, her life is saved by a man called Jack McBride, who Dan is alarmed to discover is related to an old nemesis from Somes Island. Jas and Dan reconnect with the tear-inducing singer from the village pub, and things start to get very complicated. What is clear is that whether grudges are held for decades or for hundreds of years, they can still be the cause of violence and mayhem. And in Ireland those grudges are often held across religious divides.

Jas is a devout Catholic, and Dan becomes more and more irritated at her subservience to a Western-movie-loving priest they encounter, and strangely also to Jack’s wealthy English uncle. However, being ex-law enforcement, Jas and Dan are both suspicious of the local police, specifically the helpful Detective Inspector Gerry Murphy – who ends up being able to continue his investigation over the border in Northern Island due to agency cooperation during the ceasefire. Incidents pile on and adding to the tension is the nearing of the marching season in Derry. Dan and Jas run into an Ian Paisley rally on the way to the airport to pick up their other daughter, Maria. Jas manages to get some interesting photographs of people attending the rally – further complications.

Maria, a hyperactive human rights lawyer with the United Nations, arrives with Max, a journalist, in tow. Max has a prodigious appetite for alcohol when not working on a story, and an equally prodigious number of contacts, which enable him to source information on goings on and related police investigations. The plot proceeds with a possible kidnapping, a definite kidnapping, most of the characters getting trapped underground, and various explosions and threats of explosions. And despite all the chaos Jas and her daughters manage to fit in some sight-seeing and hitting the shops. Needless to say, Dan isn’t so sanguine, “he once again wished he had never come here”, and as old horrors come back to haunt him in the present, he realises how much of his past he has kept hidden from his wife and grown-up children.

The plotting of Back Home in Derry is helped by a preface that sets up the motivation for two of the characters. The book has impetus, and although I did get a bit confused in places, McGill manages to keep the various strands of the story moving, and to finally resolve the mysteries. The book is full of allusions to 1990s popular culture, sometimes with too much exposition. But the various and varied characters work well, and mirror the political situation nicely, with some having to tiptoe around others for fear of causing offence. The uneasy relationship between Jas and Dan works too, as at its base they are a solid team.

Dan is, as always, a troublesome character. If you have read the Dan Delaney novels, you can’t help but think of the lovely young man who started the series. But this Dan has lived a long and difficult life. He has old attitudes, is slightly condescending towards Jas, and describes people in quite offensive ways. I found Back home in Derry a good final outing for Dan. He travels a long way in the novel, surprising himself as well as the reader with the possibility of future peace and reconciliation. And he finally claims a political position, although he will probably continue believing: “Bloody politics … another word for abdicating personal responsibility”. If you haven’t read the Dan Delaney books, give them a go.

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving former librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

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