McCarthy, Kevin - 'Peeler'
PEELER by Kevin McCarthy is a thriller set in West Cork, Ireland, in 1920, in a very turbulent time, during the Irish War of Independence. The hero, O'Keefe, is an RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) officer. At the opening of PEELER, O'Keefe is investigating a report of a body on a hillside in West Cork. Carrying out basic police work is difficult; O'Keefe needs an armed guard of soldiers when travelling to the scene, in case an ambush awaits him, and the local villagers are unwilling to talk to him. The RIC were a somewhat unpopular institution following the 1916 uprising, and RIC barracks were regularly attacked by the IRA, resulting in stringent security precautions.
When he does finally arrive at the scene, O'Keefe and his colleagues find that the report was true; there is a corpse of a young woman who has been tarred and feathered lying on the bleak hillside with a sign saying "Trator" (sic) upon her.
When O'Keefe returns to the barracks, he finds that this is no ordinary murder investigation. English police assistance, from the sinister Pare-Armstrong and his underlings, is forced upon him by his superiors. At a higher level in the RIC and in Dublin Castle, officers see a chance to exploit the brutal killing of a woman to obtain anti-IRA press coverage. Once it emerges that the victim used to go out with a notorious IRA gunman, O'Keefe's superiors are very keen to pin the crime on him, and close the case. But O'Keefe isn't so sure that the answer is as simple as a spurned lover's revenge, as a prostitute has recently been murdered in a case with some similarities, and therefore continues to investigate amongst the high society and brothels of County Cork.
Meanwhile the IRA are also keen to identify the culprit, and send a young IRA volunteer, Farrell, to the Intelligence division to carry out the internal investigation. Farrell is an idealistic young law student, who disappointed to be rejected from active service in the flying columns due to his poor eyesight and hence poor shooting ability and his naivete soon poses difficulties in dealing with IRA men and supporters.
The author manages to gain the reader's sympathy for the hero, O'Keefe, and his difficulties in playing a role in administering justice in such challenging circumstances. The character of Farrell, whilst ultimately crucial to the outcome of the novel, is drawn in less detail, so the reader finds it harder to identify with him. Both O'Keefe and Farrell feel conflicted at times in carrying out their duties; O'Keefe is broadly in support of Home Rule, and Farrell feels uncomfortable at the summary justice meted out by the IRA. Unsurprisingly the British characters apart from a few of the younger Auxiliaries come out in a rather negative light (two paramilitary police units, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries were sent over by the British government to support the RIC).
Kevin McCarthy is particularly good at working in a great deal of historical information into the narrative about the role of the RIC and the auxiliary forces, without slowing the action unduly. The weight of history is felt strongly in this novel. Many of the characters, including O'Keefe are still deeply influenced, and sometimes permanently physically or psychologically injured by their service in the First World War. But current history poses the more immediate physical threat.
PEELER is an impressive debut novel, superb at conveying a sense of place and history, and well plotted, deftly handling changes of perspective and the finer details of the whodunnit element and the crime scene, and should appeal to fans of Philip Kerr or C J Sansom.
Laura Root, England
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