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No Matter How Dark The Tale

Murder and memoir

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

‘What sort of lunatic are you, Quinn? Are you really going to publish this memoir about the time the IRA held your family at gunpoint? Have you completely forgotten? These are your neighbours you’re writing about, the people you meet every week on the school-run and at your son’s football matches. You’ve set yourself up as the judge of everything that happened that day and the months afterwards — the shooting of the police officer, the detectives questioning your parents, the IRA intimidation, and then the court case itself. Okay, you’ve already covered the Troubles in your crime novels, but you got away with it because those books were fiction. After your debut won those plaudits, your neighbours started coming to your door and told you stories because they thought they could use you as a propaganda tool. This time it’s going to be different. This time they’re going to come to your door and beat the crap out of you.’

This is a summary of the internal voice that kept me awake at night in the month before the publication of my last book, Murder Memoir Murder. As the weeks went by, I could feel my nerve going. Bravery in a writer disappears in the sleepless hours after midnight, and anyway, I was never courageous. I found it needed a supreme effort of will to talk about my crime novels in radio interviews and at book events, and those books only touched upon the personal trauma of the Troubles. I had a horrible desire to send a 3am email to the publishers, begging them to scrap publication plans, even though I knew it would be fatal to my writing career.

So, night after night, I lay in a cold sweat, weighing up my recklessness. Why on earth had I gone on this journey, writing a story about that spring morning in 1982 when a gang of IRA men wearing balaclavas and carrying guns had burst into our family home? The gunmen took our car and used it as the getaway vehicle in the fatal shooting of a police officer. To ensure my parents did not tip off the security forces after they left, one of them handed me a bullet and warned me they would come back and use it to shoot my dad if he contacted the police before the appointed time. I was eleven years old. I gave the bullet to my mum, who inexplicably folded it up in an old sweetie wrapper and hid it down the back of the sofa.

Part of me had always wanted to meet the IRA man again and ask him about the decisions he had made that morning. Why not give the bullet to my mother or father, instead? Why single me out among my six siblings? Did he remember how our paths crossed or had he forgotten the frightened boy and the bullet he’d pressed into his hands? Perhaps he’d handed out bullets to lots of people and never considered the stories that would form around them and the things the recipients would think through the years, remembering the cold feel of the bullet in their hands. I had changed since then, got an education, built a house and started a family. But what had happened to him? Had he changed, too?

And now, after writing the book, I still didn’t have an answer to those questions. I didn’t know why I wanted to find out what had happened to him, let alone write a book about my search. I wasn’t entirely sure of when or how I started to write the story, or why I mentioned it to my agent, without giving much thought to where that would lead. In a way, the story had been incubating for years. For over a decade, I’d been gathering facts and rumours about the hijacking and the identities of the gunmen in between writing one book and another, in my spare time or when I had writer’s block. However, until the Covid lockdowns came it was destined to remain one of those stories that were never told, one of countless in the history of the Troubles. I hadn’t wanted to take on the burden of sifting through all the half-truths and rumours about the IRA men. I was worried that it might break the bond between my family and the community and landscape to which we belonged.

But the confinement of Covid left me feeling unsettled, trapped, even. For years, an underlying anger and a vague sense of shame had niggled at me, the roots of which I preferred not to investigate. For many of us, the lockdowns sharpened neglected feelings and half-buried obsessions. During the still, boring days, I became mesmerised, transfixed by the memory of the IRA man’s masked face and his cold bullet in the same way a curious, fearful child feels the need to open the wardrobe door at night and check for ghosts.

So, in April 2020, I rashly started to write about the morning of the hijacking, and found myself unable to stop, pulled into the past like dishwater down a drain. It was as simple and irrational as that. Without realising it, I was hooked on the year 1982 and my parents’ struggle to tell the truth about the hijacking in the same way that other people got hooked on exercise routines, Netflix or a bottle of Pinot Grigio with ice at midday.

During those months of isolation and tedium, as our family calendar, which had been filled with gatherings, events and travel plans, emptied, I kept arranging, rearranging and disarranging the events of 1982. I sifted through family memories and began to connect the hijacking to another murder that had happened in the parish when my grandfather was a boy, during the Irish Civil War. I began to feel a small glow of excitement. Two unsolved murders, two families left without justice, and a web of connections hidden at the heart of a rural parish. Wasn’t that the sort of story that deserved to be told, a mystery that had never been properly explained? In answer, I saw the masked face of the IRA man rising before me, like a mysterious genie, summoned to help me write the most important story I would ever tell. The genie who had given me the gift of a bullet and had now given me a story.

When Murder Memoir Murder was published in September 2022, I began to seriously wonder; would the book allow me or anyone in my family a chance to make peace with those painful memories? All I knew was that I’d tried to put into words the emotional truth of what I’d experienced during the Troubles. Just before Christmas, the Irish Times picked the book as one of their best crime novels of the year, which in a way cemented its position as a work of fiction rather than memoir and suggested to me that I’d done little more than dig a tunnel beneath the complicated edifice of the past. I hadn’t got close to the truth or resolved the question of the gunman’s identity or why he and his comrades had picked my family to hold at gunpoint.

And then, one evening in February, my mother rang to tell me about a strange encounter she’d had with a neighbour she hadn’t spoken to in years. The woman belonged to one of the local IRA families who had been sworn enemies of my parents. Coming out of Sunday Mass, she’d tapped my mother on the shoulder and said she’d just finished my latest book. She added with a smile that she’d enjoyed it and in certain passages had been swept away by memories. Since then, my mother and her have met for cups of tea and chats. Something in the book had compelled her to approach my mother, releasing the two of them from years of frozen silence.

We can’t ignore the truth forever. We have to live in our chosen landscapes, even if that means reconciling ourselves with traumatic memories or confronting the ghosts at the dark corner of the road. Too many stories about the Troubles were never told or were lost along the way. Who knows how many secrets were taken to the grave or are still hidden in people’s hearts? One thing I have learned as a journalist and a writer is that, in spite of all the cover-ups and silence, there is always someone who knows something and the truth, no matter how twisted or incomplete, has the strength to filter through the tightest of defences. I am part of the story, too, as a child of the Troubles, and living in the landscape that I grew up in means I can’t escape the telling, no matter how dark the tale.

Anthony J. Quinn is the author of ten novels, mostly in the crime fiction and historical fiction genres. His books have received critical acclaim from the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times, Der Spiegel, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sunday Herald, the Irish Times, the Irish Independent and others.

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