How to turn an IRA as­sas­sin

Ni­cholas Searle’s ter­rific new novel is about moral hazi­ness in the Trou­bles, dis­cov­ers Jake Ker­ridge

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

Last month Ni­cholas Searle, a re­tired civil ser­vant with “many years of ex­pe­ri­ence of counter-ter­ror­ist ini­tia­tives”, pon­dered in an ar­ti­cle on the best way to turn a ter­ror­ist. “If they are to have you, [the] in­tel­li­gence ser­vices have to know you as a hu­man be­ing with com­plex emo­tional needs, and to find some­thing in you to like so that you may like them back,” he wrote.

I can’t say how many en­e­mies of the state Searle has bagged us­ing this strat­egy of em­pa­thy, but I reckon it ac­counts for his suc­cess as a writer. His de­but novel The Good Liar (2016) made a rounded and oddly en­dear­ing fig­ure out of a ruth­less con man set on de­priv­ing an el­derly woman of her sav­ings.

Al­though Searle is cagey about what ex­actly his pre­vi­ous ca­reer in­volved, I sus­pect that his new novel draws more di­rectly on his own experiences. It is set in Ireland dur­ing the fag-end of the Trou­bles, and fo­cuses on Fran­cis O’Neill, an IRA as­sas­sin, and his lonely, dis­il­lu­sioned wife Brid­get, both of whom are en­cour­aged to be­tray their cause by the Bri­tish Se­cu­rity Ser­vice’s siren song of new and care­free lives.

Once again that em­pa­thetic power is at work, and the reader comes to un­der­stand what drives Fran­cis. He is a lousy hus­band be­cause the fight against sev­eral cen­turies’ worth of in­jus­tice, em­bed­ded in his DNA, burns up all his pas­sion. With­out mak­ing his crimes seem any less cow­ardly, Searle con­vinc­ingly por­trays the cock-eyed courage he calls on to com­mit them.

This ap­proach has the ad­van­tage of mak­ing the book un­bear­ably tense at times. The reader is bounced be­tween the pos­si­bil­ity of two equally un­de­sir­able out­comes: we don’t want Fran­cis to suc­ceed in his ne­far­i­ous plans, and we don’t want him to fail and suf­fer.

But it is for its moral chewi­ness that the book is most mem­o­rable. Heroes and vil­lains may be all right for fic­tion, but this is a snap­shot of the real world from a man who has lived in it.

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