Strabane author Brian McGilloway on the return of Garda detective Ben Devlin
David Roy speaks to best-selling Derry-born crime writer Brian McGilloway about the long-awaited return of Inspector Ben Devlin in Blood Ties, a new thriller which takes place at the onset of the Covid pandemic
WHEN best-selling author Brian McGilloway last spoke to The Irish News, in early March 2020, Covid had just hit the headlines and lockdown had put paid to planned launch events for his acclaimed standalone novel The Last Crossing.
During that conversation, we asked the Derry-born crime writer if he thought a glut of fiction set during lockdown would soon be hitting bookshops.
"Who's going to want to read about Covid, having lived through it?" was his not unreasonable response at the time.
Happily, the Strabane-based author had a change of heart after hanging up the phone. Written last summer as the virus continued to dominate our lives, the atmosphere of his first Inspector Ben Devlin novel in nine years, Blood Ties, benefits enormously from being set at the very onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The action takes place in the run-up to that momentous first lockdown of March 2020: a period of huge anxiety and uncertainty further complicated by the looming spectre of imminent Brexit, the polarising effects of which are already being felt in the borderland town of Lifford, the Garda detective's long-time patch.
"I didn't set out to write it as 'a Covid book', explains McGilloway of the gripping sixth instalment of the hit Devlin series, which kicked off with his debut novel, Borderlands, in 2007.
"But I kind of found when I was writing it that it made sense, because it suited the story, which begins with a prologue in which Devlin kind of tells you how it ends – not in terms of the crime plot, but rather his own personal story.
"Just that build-up to lockdown, when there was a sense that something bad was coming, really worked for the book."
The tale at hand is sparked off by a brutal stabbing: the murder victim has a criminal past in the north which quickly complicates Devlin's investigation, and not just for jurisdictional reasons. The veteran Garda quickly uncovers links to the headline-grabbing murder of a teenager just over the border in Strabane exactly 20 years ago – including one of the forensic variety which seems impossible.
As Devlin digs deeper into his Lifford victim's murky past, he butts heads (almost literally) with a gung-ho gang of paedophile hunters taking justice into their own hands via social media, meets resistance from the still traumatised family of the long-dead teen and faces outright scorn from some of his own police colleagues who seem happy enough that a form of justice has already been served at knife-point.
Meanwhile, the cop's elderly father is suffering from health problems which the rapidly escalating Covid pandemic can only exacerbate, leaving Devlin to fret about matters close to home while also attempting to navigate the thorny 'hierarchy of victimhood' within his murder case.
Having also enjoyed huge success with his series of books centred on PSNI public protection officer DS Lucy Black (who makes a long-awaited cameo appearance in Blood Ties), the Strabane author tells me that he first had the idea for the crime mystery at the heart of his latest book some years ago, but that finding the right story to sustain it took a lot longer to reckon with.
"I'd had this idea about the fresh blood of a murder victim somehow appearing at the scene of their killer's murder years later," explains the father of four.
"I'd tried to develop it as a story a couple of times and I just couldn't find a way to tell it. I knew it didn't have 'legs' yet so I was always abandoning it and coming back to it at a later stage.
"Then, last year, I kind of worked out that it would suit Devlin and I could then see the patterns: that idea of blood connecting things, which then led on to the story with his dad and the blood ties within families – how our identities are defined by our family relationships.
"Who we are and our sense of self, we get from the people that we love. That's why the book opens with a line from a poem that I love by Elizabeth Jennings, Identity, 'When I decide I shall assemble you'.
"Our own sense of identity is one thing, but other people have a sense of who we are as well that might be completely different – but nonetheless it's who we are."
Another key line in the book is the author's own, which finds Devlin musing: "Only in Ireland could we create a hierarchy of victimhood".
"I really wanted to explore ideas about identity in victims," McGilloway tells me, "how we define 'victim' and the fact that, particularly here, over the past couple of years there's been this debate about who is or is not a victim.
"That feeds into that idea of how we see ourselves and how others view us, how we kind of attach labels and the dangers of maybe doing that. I suppose I wanted Devlin to challenge this idea of whether his victim is a victim or a perpetrator: can he be both simultaneously and how do you divorce one from the other?"
As mentioned, Devlin's relationship with the ailing father he idolises is also key to Blood Ties: the book opens with a prologue in which the detective reveals how he has "seen too much of death", how he has recently watched as "it took the breath from my father" and how, despite many years attending gruesome crime scenes, he was yet "unprepared for such a personal incursion in my life and the lives of those I love".
The emotional endgame of their father/son relationship forms a touching, highly resonant cornerstone of the new book, much of it drawn from the author's personal experience of losing his own father, Laurence, to whom Blood Ties is dedicated.
"I really missed Devlin's voice," says McGilloway of returning to his fictional detective, who last appeared in 2012's The Nameless Dead.
"His voice is probably quite close to my own, partly because it's first person narrative and also because he's my age and has my concerns. When I started writing him he had a young family, and they have grown up alongside my own family.
"He also tends to be a way that I work through my own thoughts and feelings about things. I lost my own dad two years ago, so when I started writing Blood Ties that was very much a natural thing to address.
"It wasn't even that I'd planned it, it just kind of came out as I started writing that first page and I thought, 'right, that's OK'. And I found writing Devlin's relationship with his dad really quite comforting."
As for the Garda 'tec's long absence, it seems this was entirely unintentional – and that we might actually have Brexit to thank for his current 'resurrection'.
"I loved having Devlin's voice in my head again," McGilloway enthuses. "I had always intended to go back to him, it was just that every story that I came up with didn't suit him or his world. But then the whole Brexit thing happened and brought the border back into public consciousness again – and the borderlands are very much 'Devlin'."
Blood Ties is available now, published by Constable. Signed copies available to purchase from No Alibis in Belfast via Noalibis.com