The Nameless Dead, by Brian McGilloway
After a brief hiatus due to the release of last year’s acclaimed Little Girl Lost, Inspector Ben Devlin is back. In The Nameless Dead, Brian McGilloway’s beloved Garda detective investigates the murder of a disabled newborn baby, its tiny skeleton found buried on an islet between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The baby is discovered inadvertently during a search for Declan Cleary, a suspected informer missing since 1976. The organisation doing the digging is the Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, a factual entity set up to locate the bodies of the Disappeared, those unfortunate individuals abducted and presumed murdered by paramilitary groups throughout the Troubles. Regrettably for Devlin, legislation surrounding the Commission proscribes any investigation into the death of the baby, its body being evidence obtained as a result of their activities. Ever the compassionate maverick though, Devlin refuses to allow his conscience to be stilled by the law.
In his previous work, McGilloway has proven himself to be a bold and uncompromising chronicler of the new Northern Ireland, and The Nameless Dead is no different. To we outsiders on the mainland, the Good Friday Agreement can sometimes be seen as a line drawn neatly under a black period in history. As McGilloway so adeptly points out, this is a ludicrous notion. There can no more be real closure for an entire province than there can be for individuals, and in The Nameless Dead, the psychological scars of the Troubles are still fully visible. An ex-Provo lives a hollow existence, having dedicated his life to a cause that ceased to be; the loved ones of the Disappeared remain enveloped in melancholy, and certain sections of the community still long to pick at the scabs of the past. The Nameless Dead is not cynical, but studiously realistic. Peace in Northern Ireland is a great deal more complex than signatures on a page.
Key to the book is the concept of limbo. McGilloway references the practice of burying deceased, un-baptised babies in unconsecrated ground, with their souls being excluded from Heaven. It is a powerful image, and can be found not just in the fates of departed infants, but in the lives for those the Disappeared left behind, and in the geographic location of the dig for remains, caught a no-mans-land between North and South.
While McGilloway’s greatest strength is in his political and social frankness, he is also no slouch in terms of plotting. The investigation is well paced, and with enough mystery to it to keep the reader guessing. Beyond that, McGilloway also allows us time with the Devlin family, showing Devlin wrestling with the difficulties of parenthood and work/life balance. This is a refreshing approach, making Devlin more three-dimensional than many of his whisky-swilling, marriage-wrecking counterparts.
Overall then, The Nameless Dead is another triumph from the master chronicler of modern Northern Ireland. Brooding and poignant, it is a reminder, were one needed, of exactly why McGilloway has been so liberally showered with plaudits in his career so far.