Borderlands – Brian McGilloway (2007)

Garda Inspector Benedict Devlin is the head of CID in the Irish town of
Lifford in Donegal which is a stone’s throw across the border from Strabane
in Northern Ireland; when the near-naked of a young woman is discovered
literally straddling the border, which is ill-defined, it only becomes his
case when she is named as Angela Cashell a Lifford resident. Angela is the daughter of Johnnie Cashell, well-known as a dubious character, who has his own suspicions as to the culprit and takes the law into his own hands. But Devlin soon discovers that the case is much more complicated than Cashell suspects; it seems the roots of the crime may stretch into the past and involve one of his own colleagues. As he delves deeper there is another murder, his own family come under attack and the action builds towards a violent climax.

Borderlands is McGilloway’s debut novel which was listed for the CWA New
Blood Dagger. In some ways this is rather strange because in many ways,
while highly competent, it is a fairly standard procedural. The plot hardly
breaks new ground, most of the characterisation is fairly average, the
writing fairly ordinary. None of them is badly done and the book is
well-paced and readable but hardly anything to get excited about. Two things lift it out of the ordinary however.The first, and lesser, is the location. A new one to me, and as far as I know to mystery fiction, it obviously has great possibilities as far as recent (and more distant) history are concerned and in the very nature of these borderlands. McGilloway clearly knows the area intimately and writes very well of it. Good location writing is always an enormous bonus in this kind of series (for Borderlands is the first in a series).

Secondly and more intriguing is the narrative voice. Borderlands is told in
the first-person by Devlin. First-person narrative in itself is a little
unusual for this kind of procedural. But McGilloway takes it a step further
by making Devlin continually stop and question himself with a sort of
self-analysis. I am still not quite sure what is intended here. One of the
best aspects of the book is that as it opens Devlin is a happily married man
with two children. But during the book both his sexual appetite and a
sudden, admittedly repented, act of violence will be revealed. It is unclear
however, to me at least, whether we are meant to see Devlin as to some
extent an unreliable narrator or whether the first-person perspective is
just a stylistic device? Is the book’s lack of prose colour a reflection of
Devlin’s limited imagination or McGilloway’s style? Are the peculiarities
just a part of Devlin (to take one example a great deal more is made of his
kissing another woman than a fire-bomb attack on his house which nearly
incinerates his family)? The narrative style is a curious blend of
self-questioning and police report.

In any case it is this peculiar first-person narration, and Devlin’s
character, taken with a new and interesting location which give the book its
distinction. The other elements – plot, characterisation, observation – are
all adequate but nothing out of the ordinary; it is Devlin’s voice which
adds the additional interest. Whether is wholly succeeds I am not sure but
can see that it would be interesting to find out.

(March 2009)