What an engrossing read! Serpent’s Tail by Martin Dillon will surely become a classic of our times. I say “our times” in that this novel set in the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland has a backdrop of recent modern British history.
No one is possibly better equipped to write this novel as Dillon has written several non-fiction books about the “Troubles” and is considered an expert on the subject. He was born in Belfast and worked in that city as a journalist before fleeing Ireland as a result of terrorist threats.
His immense knowledge of the security situation back “in the day” is obvious in his telling of the tale of two young Belfast men, Stephen Kirkpatrick and Michael McDonnell. They were both raised in Andersonstown, a predominantly Catholic area of Belfast, by their widowed mothers. As teenagers, they fell foul of the IRA when they tried to rob a shopkeeper falsely claiming they were IRA. The IRA tarred and feathered them for a breach of their “laws.”
Following that, the RUC’s Special Branch in the form of detectives Bradford and Green, decided to recruit the hapless pair as informants. They agreed and took the money in exchange for providing useless or false information. However the detectives wised up and set out to incriminate these two young men by planting their fingerprints all over a rifle fired by the police at a Gaelic football game. This is the point when the story really lifts off as British intelligence, in the form of MI5 and a SAS Major as the MRF (Military Reaction Force), become involved in a high-stakes game of bluff and counterbluff.
The two young men become pawns in a deadly “game” played out between the MRF and Brendan McCann, a Provisional IRA commander.
The story is thrilling not only for the plot but Dillon’s characters and the setting are all superb. There is no weak link in this book. The plot is based on a true story and it shows. It is utterly feasible.
The characters are master pieces and I am particularly fond of Jimmy Carson, a neighbour and mentor to Stephen Kirkpatrick. Carson is fond of dishing out the home-spun philosophy but it is done in the most amusing way. The author would have us believe most of the Carson “homilies” spring from his character’s knowledge of a French philosopher named as Francois Bouan. [I am still unsure if Bouan is the author’s private joke as the only Bouan reference I am able to find is within the pages of Dillon’s books] Notwithstanding my aside, Jimmy Carson is the source of some really funny anecdotes including the one about a dog, a cat and a mouse. This is one of the beauties of “Irishness” – no matter how serious the situation, they can invariably find humour or the craic.
The humour is welcome at times. This is a serious and sad tale, told by a master who knows the subject and the people intimately.
An overwhelming takeaway from the book is the author at no time uses his stage to broadcast a personal political message or agenda. It is left entirely to the reader to form their own opinions about the “why’s and wherefores’” of the then current political scenario. Undoubtedly, it was a sad and tragic episode of British and Northern Irish history. This reader cannot help feeling that the “Troubles” was a kind of madness inflicted on this small part of the world.
A madness because I visited Northern Ireland on many occasions and have worked with many wonderful people from one or the other of the six counties. My personal happy experiences of both the country and its people reinforces my amazement at the madness of the “Troubles.”
Back to the book – If your thing is dirty tricks and conspiracies, black propaganda, disinformation, psychological warfare, agents and double agents, then you really can’t go wrong.
I really cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Thank you Martin Dillon and Thistle Publishing for the fresh release of this book.
I received a free electronic copy of this novel from Netgalley, Martin Dillon, and Thistle Publishing. I was under no obligation to review it. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.
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