How to turn an IRA assassin
Nicholas Searle’s terrific new novel is about moral haziness in the Troubles, discovers Jake Kerridge
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.