While more veteran crime-fictionists from the Emerald Isle—Ken Bruen, Tana French, Stuart Neville, John Connolly and Adrian McKinty among them—usually grab up the headlines, Anthony Quinn has quietly made a reputation for himself over the last couple of years as a purveyor of deftly plotted, dark-spirited and periodically lyrical yarns set amid the gurgling bogs and lurking mists of Northern Ireland. His first novel, Disappeared, won a spot on my list of 2012’s best crime-fiction works and went on to be nominated for a Strand Magazine Critics Award. Its sequel, Border Angels, is due out this month, and if there’s any justice in this world, it ought to earn Quinn more reader plaudits than a leprechaun has coins, and some headlines of his own to boot.
Quinn is a 41-year-old journalist who lives on a farm in County Tyrone together with his wife, Clare, and their four children. He spent years penning short stories (“all about individuals snared by crime,” he explains) before delivering Disappeared, which introduced Insp. Celcius Daly, an honest but forlorn detective in his late 30s, who’s moved into his father’s damp, abandoned cottage after separating from his spouse. That first tale focused on an elderly Alzheimer’s patient linked to the long-ago slaying, by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), of an alleged political informer. Border Angels takes Daly’s life a step further, sending him to investigate a fiery road crash from which leads a trail of bare footprints in the snow—the evidence of a woman having run from the scene. It doesn’t take long for Daly to connect this smash-up with a remote brothel on Northern Ireland’s troubled border, a people-trafficking scheme and a missing but resourceful prostitute with revenge on her mind.
I took the opportunity recently to ask Anthony Quinn about his history, his detective protagonist and where he expects his fiction to lead him next.
Have you always been a big reader? And if so, did you develop that interest as a result of your having had other enthusiastic readers in your family?
My mother taught me to read and write at the age of 4, and she communicated to me her love of literature. My grandfather John Daly and his brother Thomas Peter Daly lived next door in a tiny cottage, and I spent many evenings at their fireside, listening to their stories, which were full of Gaelic words and immersed in the Irish folk tradition. The tales that captivated me the most were those that occupied the boundaries between the human psyche and the animal and spiritual worlds. Their yarns were peopled with spirits and dubious beings, hares that could turn into witches, mischievous fairies, haunted thorn trees, bewitched cattle, curses and cures. They fed my childhood imagination.
After graduating with an English degree from Queen’s University in Belfast, you became—according to your website’s biographical note—a “social worker, counsellor, lecturer, organic market gardener, [and] yoga teacher” before embarking on a journalism career. What had you actually intended to do with that English degree?
It’s interesting that you’ve picked up on my somewhat tortuous career path. In a sense, I never really had a proper path. For most of my formative years, I had a vocation for the priesthood, and I never really considered doing anything else with my life, apart from writing. However, love intervened when I met Clare, along with darker fears, doubt and the dread of loneliness. I spent three days and nights in a Catholic seminary and was appalled by the frozen anguish I saw in the faces of the seminarians. I fled the place and never wanted to return.
I think that the celibate Daly, shuddering with the cold and remorse in the damp cell of his cottage, with Lough Neagh sighing at his window, represents the solitary, broken life the priesthood might have held in store for me.
Why was Insp. Celcius Daly, “a Catholic detective in a Protestant nation,” the right protagonist for the type of story you wished to tell?
Daly is an outsider himself, a detective with the wrong religion. He has to pit himself against criminals as well as the institutional bias of a predominantly Protestant and Unionist police force. This adds to the perplexities that beset him, the sense that in professional terms he is all at sea, just as he is in his personal life. In Disappeared, his colleagues suspect him of being a traitor, of harboring misplaced loyalties to the wife of a suspected IRA man. Whilst making it harder for him to succeed as an investigator, his outsider status also leaves him more empathic and perceptive, especially when dealing with outsiders....
Your new novel portrays the rugged dividing line between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a murky place, where crime runs rampant. How much reality is there in that depiction?
I’ll have to plead guilty to manufacturing at least some of the darkness of the border region in Border Angels, but relatively speaking it is a lawless place, with former IRA commanders still holding sway. Crime involving illegal fuel laundering, cigarette smuggling and drug dealing is rampant, though in more complicated, subtle ways than the book depicts.
Daly may be the protagonist in Border Angels, but its Lena Novak—a young Croatian spitfire who, after being forced into prostitution, manages to escape her brothel (under suspicious circumstances)—who’s the book’s most memorable character. From what colorful corner of your imagination did she spring?
There is no living model for the character of Lena Novak, who so obligingly came to life within the pages of Border Angels. Like the characters of David Hughes and Dermot Jordan [in Disappeared], she’s a fugitive, a vulnerable character who finds sanctuary in a hostile landscape. She’s also the book’s heart, and its central point-of-view. I thought it would be interesting to approach 21st-century Ireland through its wild and rugged borderland, to see it through the eyes of a foreigner who had been kidnapped from the troubled border of her own homeland.
What personal strengths or confidences do you think Daly derived from his encounter with the lovely Lena? Is he a permanently changed man?
The latter part of the book charts Daly’s flight into the ragged thorn trees, the gruesome bogs and broken-down ghost-estates of border country. He pursues Lena through this wilderness, not so much as an investigator, but as a naïve and lovelorn man stranded in the jaws of an unpleasant divorce, searching for a guide, a light to plumb the darkest depths of his feelings. Slowly, he begins to realize what Lena represents to him. She becomes that little bit of death he needs to enfold his failed marriage and its mistakes, and bear them away to the bottom of a deep, dark river. His detective instincts are vindicated by the end of the book, but his inner life evolves, as well. I’ll let readers decide for themselves if he is a changed man.
Can I assume that you’re working on a third Celcius Daly novel?
I’m drawing to the close of a historical thriller set in 1919 featuring [Irish revolutionary leader] Michael Collins. I’ll finish it in mid-November, turn over a new page and begin immediately on the next Celcius Daly yarn. I’ve missed writing about border country and I’m looking forward to spending time with Daly again.