Brian McGilloway is author of the critically acclaimed Inspector Benedict Devlin series. He was born in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1974. After studying English at Queen’s University, Belfast, he took up a teaching position in St Columb’s College in Derry, where he is currently Head of English.
His first novel, Borderlands, published by Macmillan New Writing, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger 2007 and was hailed by the London Times as “one of (2007’s) most impressive debuts.” The second novel in the series, Gallows Lane, was shortlisted for both the 2009 Irish Book Awards/Ireland AM Crime Novel of the Year and the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2010. Bleed A River Deep, the third Devlin novel, was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of their Best Books of 2010. The fourth novel, The Rising, was published this spring alongside the new standalone novel, Little Girl Lost, featuring DS Lucy Black.
Brian, it is indeed a pleasure to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. I have been waiting a while for this interview, as I love your evocation of the Irish border country. How about let’s start off with a description of your connection to this locale?
I use two different setting for my two series. The Devlin books are set on the Irish border where I now live. It’s choice was more because I wanted a setting that would reflect the borderlands of Devlin’s own personality, but also as a way of expressing the duality that marks the sense of community in Northern Ireland – two sides separated by an invisible line. I thought I could reflect the changes in the North by the changing relationship between the Guards in the Republic and the PSNI in the North. The Lucy Black book, Little Girl Lost, does that more obviously because I set it in Derry – where I was born and grew up. It has two names, traditionally depending on what side of the city you live on (it’s split down the middle by a river). But that’s changing too, for the better.
What things about the borderlands make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
The Irish border has always had a Wild West feel to it, a sense of lawlessness and frontier. I’ve tried to reflect that in the books – Gallows Lane deals with the idea of summary justice, Bleed A River Deep is about a gold mine with no gold. The great thing about the border now, in comparison with when I was younger, is that the checkpoints have gone. The only thing that signifies the movement from one country to another is the change in the quality of the tar on the roads and the speed signs change from miles to kilometers per hour.
No, I wanted the border setting to be an integral character – so much so that I called the first book in the series Borderlands to draw attention to that.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
By locating the stories in places I know, it brings them much more alive to me in writing them. I know everyplace I describe, even if I’ve played with the geography – moving buildings twenty miles along the border and that type of thing.
How do Devlin andLucy interact with their surroundings? Are they natives,a blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about it, boosters?
Both Devlin and Lucy grew up in the areas where they now serve, which in real terms is highly unlikely to happen. I wanted to do it, though, so that the place would be very much part of them. Devlin seems very at home in the borders, Lucy isn’t so keen on being back in Derry initially, but as she finds her place over the course of the book, she comes to terms with some of the nastier stuff that happened to her there, while also having to face some of the secret history that was not exclusive to Derry, but very much part of growing up during the Troubles.
The local reaction has been generally positive. I think people find it a little unsettling at first to read books set in locations they know and, especially with my first, a lot of people were reading it trying to work out who all the characters were based on. For some reason, a lot of people assumed I based Devlin on myself. When in fact every character reflects a facet of yourself, I think, like the characters in a dreams are all versions of the dreamer.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Not so much on location. Keeping track of ages proves difficult for me. Devlin’s youngest son, in particular, in a draft of the third book, I wrote a scene where he was sitting on the rug in his nappy eating a Rusk (a baby biscuit). It was only in the edit that I realized the boy would have been about six in that book…
Of the borderland novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
“As a passenger, she had time to look out of the window at the city. It still shocked her how much it had changed since she had left. Then it had seemed on the verge of destroying itself; two banks of the river, two names, two tribes, the schism so great that at one stage a British prime minister had seriously contemplated running the border down the Foyle, bisecting the city with the Cityside in the Republic and the Waterside in the North.
“Now, though, the place seemed to have found its feet. Red brick still abounded, but one by one bridges literal and metaphorical were traversing the river, drawing the two sides closer. The city that had been the birthplace of the Troubles was now being used as an example of accommodation in the quest to solve the issue of Orange parades.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I think the finest crime writers use location as a character and, indeed, the characters would not survive outside of their location, so closely tied to it have they become. James Lee Burke is my big writing hero, particularly the Robicheaux books. Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, Dennis Lehane and Boston, John Connolly and Maine, Michael Connelly and LA, Colin Dexter and Oxford…
Next year’s Devlin was called Isle of Bones but that may change. It deals with the discovery of a cillin (a grave site for unbaptised children who were refused burial in Church graveyards) uncovered during a dig for one of the Disappeared. Examination of the bodies in the cillin reveals that a child was murdered. The problem is, legislation covering the Disappeared digs stipulates that no evidence uncovered in one of the digs can ever be investigated or prosecuted. Devlin has to decide whether to follow the letter of the law, but in so doing, let a child murderer get away with it. You can guess what he does…
Brian, thanks much again for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Brian McGilloway, visit his homepage.