Author Patrick McGinley on 'concoction of filth' that disgusted Donegal
David Roy speaks to Co Donegal-born author Patrick McGinley about a new edition of his classic 1978 debut novel Bogmail, a darkly comic tale of murder and extortion set in a small village on the picturesque northwest coast
AUTHOR Patrick McGinley (80) has written eight acclaimed novels and a well-received memoir during his four decades as a writer, yet it is his very first novel, Bogmail, which continues to serve as his calling card.
Set in the fictional Co Donegal village of Glenkeel, the book won praise from critics on both sides of the Atlantic when first published by Penguin in 1978 – although the Donegal Democrat did denounce it as "a horrific concoction of filth" and "a shocking libel" to the region, a review gleefully reproduced on the front cover of the latest edition, published by Head of Zeus.
The 'filth' in question comes in the form of dismemberment, lust and dysfunctional male psychology, a beguiling crime fiction-flavoured cocktail which McGinley serves up with lively, lyrical and literary flair while conjuring an evocatively rendered rural backdrop.
When village publican Roarty dispatches daughter-bothering barman Eales with a murderous thump from his beloved Encyclopaedia Britannica, his meticulous cover-up is quickly undermined by the mysterious 'Bogmailer', whose regular, mocking, money-seeking correspondence indicates that he knows Roarty's every move.
Could it be Potter, an Englishman working for an international mining concern while romancing the housemaid of prickly Catholic cleric Canon Loftus?
Or perhaps one of Roarty's other regulars, who delight in taking their 'pub chatter' to new intellectual heights: wise old farmer Crubog, oddball Marxist Cor Mogaill, jaded local journalist Gimp Gillespie or land-lusting lobsterman Rory Rua?
Bogmail was an auspicious debut for the Glencolmcille-born author, who was working in publishing in London at the time he wrote the book: appropriately, given Roarty's choice of murder weapon, McGinley's job included a stint editing encyclopaedias.
As he recalls, his idea for Bogmail actually stemmed from another novel he'd deemed too dangerous for publication:
"I spent 1965/6 in Australia," says the author, who resides in Kent with his wife, Kathleen. "I wrote a novel in the 'realist' school of writing. When I gave it to a colleague of mine to read, he said 'this is an autobiography, isn't it?', and began saying scurrilous things about me.
"I decided there and then that I must write a novel about something that nobody would accuse me of – and I came up with the idea that nobody would accuse me of murdering someone.
"I started with the idea of the publican, Roarty, murdering his bartender Eales with a volume of Britannica – that says a lot. It means that it isn't going to be a fact-based novel.
"When I began writing the first few pages, I began to realise that material had comic possibilities, and that I wouldn't be writing a traditional detective story."
Indeed, it is Roarty rather than local lawman Sergeant McGing who is the true 'detective' of the piece: although the latter fancies himself (erroneously) as an Irish Sherlock Holmes, the increasingly fraught landlord's sneaking suspicions regarding the true identity of his loathsome Bogmailer are what drive the story forward.
"It's a comicbook, a comedy," comments McGinley. "It could be described as a tragicomedy, because it's an examination of the the deterioration of Roarty's personality as a result of murdering someone.
"He loses track of himself. By the end of the novel, he is not the same man who was introduced at the beginning."
As McGinley explains, the addition of Potter's English 'outsider' into a heady mix of Irish characters also proved crucial to the novel's development and ultimate success.
"It was like a river," he tells me of the writing process. "Tributaries joined here and there until there were two or three stories going on at the same time. I introduced Potter as an 'alien' eye commenting on what was going on in Roarty's pub. He also becomes Roarty's prime suspect even though he actually likes him. Their relationship is at the centre of the novel.
"Some critics found it quite rich in that respect, as there is a lot going on; others said that it was over-plotted and that it would have been better had I just stuck with Roarty."
Well, you can't please everyone. As mentioned, Bogmail received good reviews at home and abroad, not least in America where the New York Times described the book as "a complex Irish plaid with strands of murder and blackmail".
It was even nominated for 'best mystery novel' at the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Awards.
No doubt critics and readers alike responded to Bogmail's unusual combination of authentically realised geography – Co Donegal's rain-swept bogs, smoky one-room bars and salt-sprayed ocean bays leap off the page – and its all too realistically constructed persons.
"Most of my novels are set in Glencolmcille where I was brought up," offers McGinley.
"The landscape of that area almost becomes another character in the books. But some of the locals who read Bogmail had difficulty with the human characters – everyone suspected that they were based on real people, which isn't strictly true.
"I mean, I doubt very much whether there has ever been a Marxist like Cor Mogaill in Glencolmcille!
"One local also objected to the rather rare pub talk in Roarty's bar – he suggested that maybe I should come into the bar more often to hear the 'real' conversation."
Bogmail was popular enough to be adapted for television in 1991 by the BBC as Murder in Eden, starring the late Tony Doyle (Ballykissangel, Who Dares Wins) as Roarty and Peter Firth (Spooks) as Potter.
The three-part drama was repeated for the first time in 2013 on TG4, coinciding with a new, lightly revised 35th anniversary edition ("a few new paragraphs here and there," McGinley tells me) of Bogmail, published by New Island that same year.
However, the author reveals he had very little to do with Shane Connaughton's screenplay.
"I was asked to be involved, but I was busy with my job in London," explains McGinley, whose most recent novel, Bishop's Delight, was published last year – he is currently "tinkering" at a new book set in Ireland just after the Civil War.
"I thought the TV version was very good, which is unusual: most authors complain about how things turn out on film, but if anything I think they stuck to the book too closely. And I hated the title, I'm not sure how they came up with that."
As for Bogmail's standing within his literary canon (which also includes the memoir That Unearthly Valley), the author admits that his debut continued to loom large for years after its initial publication.
"People kept saying to me, 'Can't you write another Bogmail?' – well, the answer to that is no," he says, with a wry chuckle.
"One critic wrote that 'it pushes your expectations pleasingly askew'. That's probably why it has survived for so long."