Veteran journalist Henry McDonald on debut crime novel The Swinging Detective
Veteran Belfast-born journalist Henry McDonald has turned his hand to crime fiction with debut novel The Swinging Detective. He spoke to Joanne Sweeney about a dark thriller with its roots in Troubles-era Belfast and Cold War Berlin
WITH a cover-mounted claim that it's "darker than The Bridge and The Killing", crime fiction fans contemplating top Irish journalist Henry McDonald's first novel The Swinging Detective will know to expect complex characters who are as flawed as those in TV's top Scandi dramas.
The newly published thriller does not disappoint on that front as McDonald introduces readers to former undercover British soldier turned Berlin detective Martin Peters, a man who lives to frequent one of the city's infamous sex clubs and maintains casual affairs with at least three women.
He's hunting a gruesome serial killer with the help of Lothar, a former Cold War informer turned sex shop operator whose customers are being dredged from the Havel River as headless corpses with alarming regularity.
But the Berlin policeman at the centre of The Swinging Detective (its title a play on Dennis Potter's famous television drama) was also once a soldier in Belfast who is now being haunted – literally – by a violent incident from his past in which he gunned down a UVF killer.
"In a strange way, The Swinging Detective, is a ghost story," offers McDonald, who has been the Ireland correspondent at The Guardian and Observer for the past 20 years.
"There's a Belfast echo: Peters sees this woman he killed on the underground train. She's a ghost who's haunting him – but there all lots of ghosts from the Cold War that keep popping up; people that will come forward from Peters' Intelligence past and there may even be a big Belfast return for him somewhere down the line."
Indeed, while it may have taken the Belfast-born writer nearly a decade to get his first novel published, he already has another two Martin Peters books planned out.
"I wrote The Swinging Detective during 2006/2007 after living in Berlin for a while on an Anglo-German journalist exchange programme – I was staying right beside where the Berlin Wall used to be," explains McDonald of his fiction debut.
"I took it to a big London publisher who loved but we couldn't get it over the line.
"Fourteen other publishers took a look at it and it was similar story. Then we were nearly over the mountain and into the Promised Land, but then one of the big international publishing houses pulled out at the last minute."
The book languished for a few years – although McDonald also developed a screenplay from it – until publisher Gibson Square in London decided to run with it.
Having been launched in well-loved Belfast independent book shop No Alibis, The Swinging Detective is now on general release.
A self-confessed insomniac who does his writing late at night or very early in the morning, McDonald got his start in journalism with a staff job at The Irish News and was later a security correspondent for the BBC in Belfast.
Until now, the Markets-born father of three has been better known for his journalistic non-fiction books, with an emphasis on Irish paramilitaries: McDonald's first book, INLA – Deadly Divisions (1994), was co-authored with Jack Holland, he co-wrote books on the UVF and UDA with Jim Cusack and also penned a biography of Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble.
McDonald has used some of his experience and knowledge from covering security and politics for his novel.
"I wanted Martin Peters to be a soldier based in Berlin as I wanted him to appeal across Europe – and you write what you know. I met these types of people as a journalist from my time at The Irish News onwards," he says.
"I covered the murder of UVF man Brian Robinson in 1989 [the only reported loyalist victim of the British Army’s alleged 'shoot to kill' policy].
"For the book, I switched the lens around and had the killer as a woman and her soldier assassin as a man, but in real life it was the other way around."
While the author does not want to give too much away about the serial killer in the thriller, he describes him as a "serial killer with a difference, he’s ideological as much as an avenger".
There's a real filmic feel to The Swinging Detective and although it's too soon for McDonald to have been approached by TV or film producers, he has already thought of either Ray Winstone or Kenneth Branagh to play the title role.
The author confesses that, when conceiving Martin Peters – named after the former West Ham player who was part of England's 1966 World Cup-winning squad – he wanted to create a character like Ian Rankin's detective Rebus.
"I didn't want Martin Philips living like a cliché; a hard-boiled, long raincoat-wearing man who's middle-aged, divorced with kids he doesn’t see and who spends his time listening to Van Morrison and drinking too much.
"The dark side of his moon is different. He has the punk influence where he spent time infiltrating the scene in Berlin just before the Wall came down – and he loves West Ham.
"Actually, the hardest thing for me to write about Peter was to be enthusiastic about another football team as I’m an Everton fan!
"The two big characters in this book are Martin Peters and the other is Berlin. Berlin's as much a character as Peters is.
"Beside his sexual libertine side, there’s a core of decency in him. But he can't make commitments, which is why he's a relationship gadfly – though probably deep down, I think he does want one, which I hope comes over in the book."
Readers might have to wait a while to discover whether Peters will settle down: since writing The Swinging Detective, McDonald has also written another novel – about Belfast teenagers in the 1980s.
:: The Swinging Detective is available in paperback now, published by Gibson Square (£8.99/€12.99)