BOOK REVIEW: GARY DONELLY’S NEVER ASK THE DEAD

The third in Northern Irish writer Gary Donelly’s D. I. Sheen series, Never Ask the Dead is a nail-biting, exhilarating piece of Belfast noir that has great drama and terrible truth in spades.

Edition published: Allison & Busby, 2021

‘Sometimes the past, just like our childhood, comes back and finds us, whether we’re ready or not.’

So writes Belfast-born, London-based writer Gary Donelly in his scintillating new thriller Never Ask the Dead. The third novel in his Owen Sheen & Aoife McCusker series, it’s unbelievably tense and exciting, the shadow of Belfast’s past looming large while the book examines and excavates the Troubles’ lingering impact.

Colleagues in the police’s Serious Historic Offences Unit – or SHOT – Sheen and McCusker get thrown into Britain’s murky involvement in The Troubles when a walk-in turns up looking for his missing father. A warning note, difficult police chief and several re-opened cases later, our protagonists are locked in an intense game of cat-and-mouse, battling rogue elements on both sides of the conflict’s divide.

A Realist Sense of Menace

Gary Donelly clearly knows the history of the Troubles inside out. And given the impact of early 2021’s Brexit complications for Northern Ireland, this is certainly a timely release.

But the story’s sense of grit is timeless. Whether he’s depicting dilapidated Belfast suburbs or stalking paranoia, he’s totally realistic.

He writes in a typically acerbic, dry Belfast scrawl, rich in bleak humour and colloquialisms. And while his emphasis is more on blood-quickening chase sequences and destructive hypocrisy, he writes about domestic and commonplace themes – alcoholism, romance and parenthood, for example – with knowing aplomb. His understanding of claustrophobia and one-on-one menace, too, is as vivid as in any BBC drama.

‘Belfast’s Vortex of Violence’

‘In Belfast, history usually spelt the Troubles and this case, it seemed, was no exception’.

Given that sociological divisions in Northern Ireland are simmering once again, any novel which deals with the province’s politics needs to be sensitive. The book manages to tread the centrist line impressively, excavating the horrific part played by British Special Branch agents whilst never shying away from the maleficent nature of the IRA.

Readers should be aware that the violence itself is often gruesome and inspired by real-life atrocities – just like how the characters are sometimes reminiscent of real-life players. Many of the novel’s more sinister instances will be likely to ring bells.

What is the truth?

The main emphasis of the book is on being a nail-biting, haunting story. But like all the best detective mysteries, Never Ask the Dead consistently navigates the meaning of truth. And in the context of the ‘Dirty War’, the meaning is always muddied, bloodied and soaked in sadness.

Crucially, you don’t need to be avidly aware of Northern Ireland’s history to enjoy the book. Donelly’s ‘alternate Belfast’ is privy to dark secrets as much as it is blood-raising drama. So whilst there are constant questions in Never Ask the Dead, the author prioritises a brilliantly page-turning story.

You can purchase Never Ask the Dead from Allison & Busby now.

World Book History #7: Music In A Crisis

It has been said a thousand times: music is the great healer.

From the earliest days of ritualistic dancing to cathedral choirs, music has always been the most direct form of creative expression. And many people will be feeling that as keenly as ever right now.

In desperate times, it’s always music that brings people together. Its value has been explored in literature for decades, but never is its impact more powerful for any community than when in a crisis.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that the Coronavirus is inspiring writers to ponder its resonance. Back in March, online music publication Pitchfork published this article detailing which albums its writers were listening to in order to ‘ease the lockdown’.

This article features three books which examine the impact of music in a crisis. From Northern Ireland to South Africa via Serbia, they exemplify just how universal the curative power of music is. They explore not just how music unifies people, but also the way it tracks cultural upheaval.  

‘Trouble Songs’, and music in Northern Ireland

Written by the legendary music journalist and activist Stuart Bailie, Trouble Songs is the definitive examination of music in Northern Ireland. Spanning the entire four-decade conflict of The Troubles, Bailie’s book traverses from the early days of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Radio Free Derry in 1969, right through to the Good Friday Agreement and beyond. Along the way he touches on seminal figures like Terri Hooley, John Lennon’s contrarian support for the IRA and the revelatory power of punk music.

Central to Bailie’s narrative is the way in which music acted as a revolutionary motion for the normal people of Northern Ireland. For many, it was a literal escape from an otherwise disastrous probability. As Jim Reilly of the punk group Stiff Little Fingers says: ‘All my friends I grew up with – they all ended up in the IRA doing long years in prison. And simply because I was playing music that kept me away from that’ (Bailie, 2019).

Stiff Little Fingers onstage in Berlin. Image Credit: Montecruz Foto Flickr

And in Northern Ireland, music counted for the truest representation of the community – a counter to the bias that was appearing elsewhere. Late on, Paul Hartnoll, one half of the English duo Orbital talks about their super-hit ‘Belfast’;

‘We just thought ‘wouldn’t it be good to actually make something that’s beautiful and lovely and soft about Belfast and put it out in England where everybody has a completely different view of the place?’’ (Bailie, 2019).

Bailie proves that during the Troubles, music was both a reaction to the violence and how people come together to rise above it.

How can Electronic Music Save Communities?

Rave culture also has a well-documented history of inclusiveness, from its early beginnings as minority expressionism in the US to the fall-out from the Berlin Wall in 1989. Matthew Collin’s Rave On is meant as an exploration of clubbing across the world, but many of the communities he visits turned to electronic music culture as – just like in Northern Ireland – a reaction to their dire surroundings.

The most obvious example is techno’s birthplace, Detroit. Throughout the book, he hands the narrative over to those who were there at the time, including choice quotes from the likes of scene originator Juan Atkins; ‘There’s nothing to do here. There’s nowhere to go; the scene is dead. That’s why our stuff sounds like it does’ (Atkins, 1988).

The story is similar in Israel, where the psytrance scene has consistently seen Israelis and Arabs push beyond the never-ending conflict and conservatism there. Like in Stuart Bailie’s Trouble Songs, Collin emphasises how it’s most notably the everyday, normal people that come together to push back against distasteful politics and partisan atrocities.

And in his chapter about the impact of house music in South Africa, he examines why it means so much in a country still marred by racial division. But again, in places like Cape Town and the suburbs of Durban, music is what unites black and white people above everything else. When talking about black and white kids partying together for the first time, he makes a profound assertion; ‘rave culture, with its implicit message of tolerance, suggested… that another way might at least be possible’.

What toll does a crisis take on music?

The Troubles saw a high physical cost to musicians. The horrific case of the Miami Showband Massacre is the most infamous example.

But Asne Seierstad, in her wonderfully human With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia, navigates the mental cost in the final chapter with Yugoslav pop/rock titan Rambo Amadeus.

From the beginning Amadeus’ music reflected civilians’ distrust and their suppression by a malignant regime. He has always cultivated himself as a protest against the uber-nationalistic musical fare that dominated the Serbian charts – and pretty much acted as a propaganda machine – in the late ‘80s.

Rambo Amadeus. Image credit: zeljkoo Flickr

On the one hand, Seierstad spends a lot of time dealing with Amadeus’ cultural importance. When she observes his gigs at the time of writing (1999/2000), he remains as popular and performative as ever, providing welcome relief to students suffering the perennial economic hardships since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

But as he reveals at one point; ‘I’ve asked my parents not to tell me anything related to politics – I’m just sick of hearing everyone complain while nothing happens’. Amadeus expresses what we know many musicians come to feel; that kicking back against oppressive governments – and dealing with everyday political life – is exhausting, and ultimately devoid of romance.

Conclusion

During the coronavirus, many people will have sought solace from music. But a literary approach to why and how it has that power is a useful tool.

Music provides an escape from political wrangling and Machiavellian point-scoring. While much of the press will be focusing on how politicians across the world deal with crises, explorations of music are far more human and relatable.

Music accompanies change, growth and development on a global scale. The three books here, alongside others, are prime examples of why that’s so important.  

Purchase Stuart Bailie’s excellent Trouble Songs from Waterstones here.

Pick up Matthew Collin’s Rave On for an insight into how dance music has also changed Shanghai, New York and more.

And head here to purchase Asne Seierstad’s now classic With Their Backs to the World: Portraits From Serbia.