Adrian McKinty: Working-Class Hero of Irish Crime Fiction
Lisa Levy Profiles the Man Behind the Sean Duffy Series
There is a natural confusion, or conflation, among readers between a protagonist and an author. This is especially true in crime fiction series, where readers spend a lot of time over a span of years with a particular character. If a series protagonist is complex and evolves over the course of the books, and all of the good ones do, it’s like meeting an old friend again and catching up on his life. There is a qualitative difference, therefore, between reading The Great Gatsby 20 times and reading all of, say, Adrian McKinty’s Detective Sean Duffy books: you will put down Fitzgerald knowing about a few people at a particular time, but McKinty will have shown you a stretch of seven years in a sectarian and often scary world: The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.
Duffy’s creator, Irish writer Adrian McKinty, grew up in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. McKinty says, “[Duffy’s] about a generation older than me, but I wanted to take the character and put him in the house where I was born and grew up. I wanted to take Duffy and throw him into my house.” And then he pushed it further: “I put all of our neighbors in the books under fictional names. So they interact with this thing they would hate most in the world. Duffy was a Catholic. They’re not going to like that, that’s going to drive them nuts. He’s a policeman. That’s going to drive them mental. Then, he’s educated. They’re all working class, he’s middle class.” McKinty half-jokes, “As it turns out that’s important in the UK and Ireland—class.”
So Duffy is a Catholic (or Fenian, as he’s often told, sometimes to his face but usually behind his back), university-educated, detective in the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary, or the Northern Irish police force), disliked by his superiors because he’s both alienated and insubordinate. He also happens to be an excellent detective, even though, as McKinty jokes, he doesn’t have a single murder conviction to his name. “I’m also enjoying the fact that he’s never had a murder conviction. I thought maybe I should change that. At least have one guy get to trial, wouldn’t it be great? Finally got someone to trial, finally got someone to conviction,” McKinty smiles. “That would be good. Then it would also be fun, having him so frustrated.” Duffy also is a perennial loser with women, as he’s a religious minority in a job with a low salary and a short life expectancy.
Duffy is usually frustrated, with good reason. He’s a guy who has to check underneath his BMW for mercury tilt bombs every time he gets into the car. To unwind (and sometimes, while he works), he likes a snort of cocaine (the good pharmaceutical stuff that cops get), some hash or cannibis resin, a pint glass of vodka gimlet, and music: perennial favorites are the Velvet Underground and Tom Waits (all of the Duffy titles have Waits references; the latest, just out, is called Rain Dogs). We’re also reminded upon occasion that Duffy (like McKinty) has a degree in philosophy, which certainly comes in handy while he’s doing riot duty (cruising around Belfast in an armored Range Rover) or navigating the tricky territory between the RUC and Special Branch (MI5), who have been borrowing Duffy for sensitive missions.
McKinty, though, is rather content, especially now that the family cat has been found (his house sitters reported it lost and he was worried about telling his daughters, but it came back on its own). We met in New York City, as he is in America with his family while his wife, an academic, is on sabbatical. She is American; they met at Oxford while she was studying abroad, the first time McKinty left Ireland to “cross the water” (something his characters often dream of doing but can’t). After six years at Oxford McKinty came to New York City. “I lived in New York for seven years. Then we lived in Denver for eight years.” By Denver, he was married, and the couple had two daughters. McKinty encouraged his wife to look for another job, and thus they ended up settling in Melbourne, Australia—Irish dad, American mom, Australian kids. The McKinty’s are an accidental embodiment of the end of the British empire.
The way McKinty tells the story, he’s just lucky. He had begged his now-wife to let him come to America after he graduated. “She very reluctantly let me come back with her to New York. She was still at college. Then I went looking for work. I’ll never forget it because, I arrived on Wednesday, by the Saturday night I was pulling pints in a pub in the Bronx. I mean that basically, my job interview went like this. I went up this far in the Bronx and I said to the bartender, ‘You don’t have any work do you by any chance?’ He said, ‘Uh well, can you start on Saturday?’ I said yes. He said, ‘You’re from Belfast, is that right?’ I go yes, yes. He goes‘all right yes, Saturday night, you’ll be here 6 o’clock.’ Great. Then as I’m walking out the door he says, Colombo fashion, ‘You do know how to pour a pint of Guinness don’t you?’ ‘Oh yeah, of course!’ I immediately went home and phoned my friend Noel, a barman, about this. ‘How do you pour a pint of Guinness, mate?’ He said it’s actually quite complicated.” Noel explained the three-step process, and McKinty was pulling pints and hanging around Irish enclaves in New York City for the next few years. It all served for great material for his first series, now called the Dead books (starting with Dead I May Well Be in 2004, which was shortlisted for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and was picked by Booklist as one of the ten best crime novels of the year).
Rebecca Gray, McKinley’s longtime editor in the UK (at Serpent’s Tail), describes her theories about McKinty and Duffy. “I think Adrian’s Sean Duffy books have a lot of elements that make them appealing. They have the absolute essentials for crime novels—a tight plot, hold-your-breath scenes, plenty of puzzling and misdirection—and then Adrian layers in characters you wish you could meet in the flesh, a wry tone and plenty of jokes, a vivid picture of a landscape and its people and plenty of comment on corruption, power and political will. And it’s all within a setting that’s a fascinating and anomalous historical period which Adrian experienced himself, and which he uses in an oblique way—so there’s always a real life event in there, and his plot always looks at the Troubles and the 1980s from a point of view that seems unrelated to the wider political landscape but is usually tangled up in it somehow. So I think readers love him because he offers them a pacy, compulsive read that also has a layer of complexity, thoughtfulness and intellectual challenge.” McKinty’s American publisher, Dan Mayer of Seventh Street books, agrees. “Adrian is an exceptional writer and has fantastic plotting instincts. The Sean Duffy series is at heart a historical mystery, even as it functions as a police procedural, and the character is so interesting and nuanced. He’s flawed yet decent, escapist yet diligent, philosophical yet streetwise. He really comes fully formed, yet grows in so many ways over the course of the novels.”
Along with the Dead and Duffy series, McKinty has written several standalone novels, not all of them crime fiction. He’s a particularly keen observer of class in literature. “I mean, for me, I grew up in this working-class housing estate and the books that they were telling us were the greatest books, it was like Penelope Lively or Julian Barnes or Martin Amis. It was all these upper middle class people who live in London and their fucking problems,” McKinty says. “ I lived in a street where it was 80 percent unemployment. After the factory closed everybody was unemployed, nobody had a job. These were hard working-class people, but people were making music, reading books, they were having discussions. There was this intellectual life that was going on.” Here, over big bowls of latte on the Upper West Side, was the fight I expected in McKinty, the fight in Duffy: anti-establishment but smart. “I think there is a lot of very, very prosperous writing. [Those] writers have to distill it down to these genuine moments of the human experience. It just feels so cluttered and mannered and pressured. All that sort of swirl of writing, and also so fake, and so upper-middle class.”
McKinty has made a particular study of the Booker Prize. “I think about this a lot. A little analysis I did last year was I looked at the prize-judging panels. One of the things I did was analyze how many of them went to private school. Everybody thinks in England or the UK, everybody goes to private schools, wears little Harry Potter uniforms and hats. They’re talking about seven percent of the population. Most people go to comprehensive school. Ninety-three percent of the population. Seven percent go to private school, one percent go to boarding school. Yet that’s the impression that people have. So I do that analysis of the books and prize-judging panel. Almost all went to private school, and if you look at the chairperson of the judging panel, it’s almost 100 percent boarding school or private school graduates. It’s never a surprise really why a working-class woman from Birmingham does not get picked. Amazingly, Zadie Smith did not win. Monica Ali did not win. Working-class women from London, writing about their lives…” The assumption is that no one is interested in such things, though sales figures and other accolades do not bear this out.
When we pivot to discussing crime fiction, which I think often elucidates social issues better than literary fiction, McKinty still insists there is plenty of class bias. He said, “I was supposed to write a review of this English mystery. I hadn’t read any of his previous books and series, but this is like book number seven, a huge bestseller. He had a policeman, who is the hero, holding these books. He’s working-class supposedly. He’s met his girlfriend and she’s talking to the policeman about Hemingway and he’s never heard of Hemingway. I thought, Really? Never heard of Ernest Hemingway?” This is the kind thing McKinty cannot abide. “I think that’s the perception, is that all these working-class people, they don’t know anything, all they do is watch soap operas on TV or Jerry Springer, then they drink and watch football and go down the pub. There’s this perception that they have no interior lives. That drives me crazy.”
McKinty, though, is far from bitter. He loves living in Australia but makes it back to Ireland at least once a year. He marvels at the changes, being a child of the Troubles. I mention that as the Duffy books continue the world outside Ireland seems to intervene more and more (Rain Dogs involves a delegation of Finnish businessmen visiting to possibly set up a factory), and he agrees. Between Game of Thrones tourism and the revitalized economy Belfast has become “a real Northern European city,” McKinty reports optimistically. He tells me about packed poetry readings and lots of music and of course, the pubs. Where as once upon a time “the best thing about Belfast is there were so many explosions that every place became a parking lot,” now it’s actually a place where people can live lives, not just park. McKinty will carry on across the water, and his readers hope maybe Duffy can get a slice of happiness someday.