In 2000 the skeletal remains of a young woman are found in a sandpit on an abandoned aerodrome in coastal County Down. The enigmatic Cole – is he a Ministry of Defence investigator, a lawyer working for an unnamed client, or someone far more closely linked to the corpse than he will admit or others find comfortable? – finds his enquiries baulked at every turn and his safety threatened. The narrative moves back and forth from modern times to 1944 when American military are billeted at the aerodrome, but Gabriel Hooper sleeps alone in the barrack reserved for black servicemen. His encounter with the daughter of the minister of the “Elected Brethren”, and their dance in a deserted projection room, has catastrophic consequences for them both, with repercussions that last up to and beyond the discovery in the sandpit.
McNamee hauntingly evokes the decay and desolation of the dwindling coastal town he calls Morne: the library where no-one seems to borrow any books, a bird’s corpse rotting on a gate, the abandoned children’s home where the files Cole seeks are missing. Not every reader will like McNamee’s sometimes staccato sentences – “It felt like a warning. A corpse on a roadside gibbet. A skull set on a post” – but that jarring is certainly deliberate. Initially the switching between the 1940s, 1970s and 2000 does not make this a straightforward read, not least because the narrative is not always chronological within those time periods. It is, however, a device that ramps up the tension.
This is not a tale in which good neatly triumphs and the just man wins – but the threads do knot despairingly together, in a stark and haunting warning of what evil men are capable of when they are convinced that they do right.