Belfast-born crime author Gary Donnelly on his new DI Owen Sheen novel, Never Ask The Dead
David Roy chats to Belfast-born crime author Gary Donnelly about the latest entry in his popular series of DI Owen Sheen novels, Never Ask The Dead
EVERYONE'S past catches up with them eventually – especially in Northern Ireland. It's something that Detective Inspector Owen Sheen is counting on, having been seconded from the London Met back to his home city of Belfast for the unenviable task of heading up the PSNI's new Serious Historical Operations Team – a unit specialising in the investigation of 'cold cases' from the Troubles.
Sheen, his ambitious partner Detective Constable Aoife McCusker and the rest of the Shot squad are the fictional crime fighting creations of west Belfast-born author Gary Donnelly. His third and newly published DI Sheen novel, Never Ask The Dead, finds the uncompromising cop tasked with looking into an infamous 1980s incident in which an unarmed IRA unit was wiped out by the SAS during an operation in Cyprus, controversially deemed a 'legal killing' by the official inquiry of the time.
There's also the pressing matter of a missing ex-RUC man who has left a scrawled, cryptic note for Sheen bearing a series of oddly familiar dates from our Troubled past along with a snatch of poetic verse in another man's handwriting.
Donnelly's hero, whose own family has been permanently scarred by the Troubles, is soon butting heads with his police superiors over the political sensitivities of his investigations into these two possibly linked cases. The Shot's leads point to the work of a notorious IRA double agent who's apparently still all too prepared to go to lethal lengths to maintain his cover, lest he be caught by the cops or his own vengeful former comrades.
This gripping, fast-paced and ambitiously structured crime novel is the follow-up to last year's Killing In Your Name, which was the sequel to the London-based writer's 2017 debut, Blood Will Be Born.
However, like any sensible crime author, Donnelly makes sure that each Sheen outing can be enjoyed by first-time readers with no previous experience of the series.
"It's something that's really important to me when I'm writing the books," the University of Cambridge-educated novelist tells me.
"You kind of hope you've got the balance right but you never really know. This time around it's been so encouraging, because the vast majority of the professional online reviewers on the new book's recent 'blog tour' were first-time readers – and many of them were not really traditional crime or noir readers either.
"The positive reception from them means that I'm doing something right, which is lovely. And, if they now become crime addicts like myself, then so much the better!"
Donnelly adds: "If you try the series from the start, there is a natural organic evolution between the books. You'll get more from it reading them chronologically, obviously, a little bit like the Jack Reacher books, if only for the development of characters."
The Belfast man's books are set in a fictionalised version of the north, a sort of 'Sheeniverse' which, while closely resembling reality in terms of our geography, politics and history, also allows the author plenty of license to exercise his imagination.
"It's a shadowy, parallel version which is still navigable for a local and also atmospherically similar enough to the real place for an outsider to get a sense of Belfast," comments Donnelly, who hails from Andersonstown but – in an autobiographical echo of his fictional creation, Sheen – has lived in London since the late 1990s.
"As a writer, it gives me a kind of manoeuvrability. Part of that is a reflection of the fact I'm writing about my home town and I wanted to very consciously write it with a degree of objectivity rather than just my own perspective.
"That's a real challenge for any author: I imagine anyone who's a native of London might experience it, but with Belfast there are added complications, of course."
Donnelly adds: "One of my real inspirations was the way Stephen King constantly returns to New England, often in geographically accurate ways but also to places of his own creation, such as Castle Rock and Derry.
"That technique clearly really works for him and it made me wonder – could I do something similar? But it drives my editor totally nuts as sometimes she's trying to fact-check these completely fictional places I've come up with."
Of course, some aspects of the 'Sheeniverse' are all too obviously inspired by unpleasant Irish realities.
"In some ways, Never Ask The Dead is an 'issue-led' book," offers the author, a father of two who teaches A-level Psychology when not hard at work coming up with new cases for Sheen to solve.
"I suppose there's an element of that within each of the Sheen series so far. I felt that there was a social responsibility for me as a writer setting books in the context of a post-conflict Troubles environment to directly engage with that historical context and re-examine it.
"So, Blood Will Be Born confronts the challenge of the Disappeared as well as other legacy issues, while Killing In Your Name represents really the abuse of power in the vacuum of law and order when that awful tumult of the Troubles was happening, and the terrible crimes that took place as a result [specifically, institutionalised child abuse].
"Never Ask The Dead really engages with the duplicity and double-speak of the world of running informers, being a double-agent and all of the things which that entailed – the dark heart of that world and its moral greywater. But I also wanted to do that in a way that was actually engaging and interesting, that people could read as a page-turning thriller."
Indeed, while such 'big themes' are certainly important to his work, Donnelly's inspiration for his books often begins with a single simple spark of imagination that sets his creative juices flowing – for example, an intriguing image which demands further investigation and elaboration.
"With this one, I kind of started off with this vision of a retired cop sweating, with his back against the wall, having received a parcel of really dark secrets from a recently deceased friend," he reveals.
"Then I asked myself the question 'What would happen if he doesn't have a mobile phone?'"
Citing the high creative standard of Vince Gilligan and co's writing on TV classic Breaking Bad as an inspiration when he works on the DI Sheen books, it seems that Donnelly has someone in mind to portray his complex cold case-cracking 'tec on the telly should the opportunity ever arise.
"Ultimately, Sheen is a London guy – he has a London accent, in my mind," says the author.
"I've always liked Rafe Spall as an actor. He's from Camberwell in south-east London, he's sort of a big guy, good looking without being 'underwear model' handsome and he's the right age too, around 38 or 39.
"I would love to see him take on Sheen because he's always very 'real' – and I reckon he'd be quite scared of Belfast in a believably out-of-his-depth kind of way."