Review: The Undiscovered Country, by Aidan McQuade

There is a sub-genre of crime fiction that is set in war-time. And most often the war is the Second World War. Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Robert Harris’ Fatherland and Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series are well-known examples. The challenge is to make the loss of a single life, and the search for justice, matter in a world where so many are dying. What sets Aidan McQuade’s book aside, and makes it utterly unique, is that it takes place during the Irish War of Independence.

The heroes of the book are a couple of young men who’ve been given the job of serving as police officers for the new Irish republic in an area of the country which has been liberated — perhaps only temporarily — from British rule. They come across the body of a ten year old boy who has been raped and murdered, and their job is to find out who killed him.

A central theme of the book is that a young country needs to establish at the outset the rule of law, and to try to put the violence of the independence struggle (and for that matter, the violence of the Great War) behind it. Everyone in this story has been touched by those historic events and the book grapples with complex issues of morality and justice.

McQuade is the former head of Anti-Slavery International and comes from South Armagh (as does one of his characters) and this is his first novel. It’s a serious, intelligent work, far more than an ordinary whodunit, and stays with you long after you finish reading the last page.