Monday, 4 September 2017

'No Surrender'

The fourth story in Darkly Haunting is by Peter Holman, who adopts a bleak and gritty approach suited to his subject matter. This is a story about Britain's Dirty War, the 'asymmetric' conflict in Northern Ireland (and elsewhere) that stretched from the early Seventies into the Nineties. Thousands died, many bodies are still missing, and a great deal of covert activity by the UK government's security agencies remains secret.

In 'No Surrender' (a very familiar phrase in Northern Irish politics, if you didn't know) a former British agent, Cowan, receives an unusual item in the post. It's a long-outdated passport for one of the missing, a young Catholic that Cowan and his colleagues pressured into becoming an informer. The logical explanation is that the Continuation IRA, or some related outfit, has tracked Cowan down in retirement and is going to kill him. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that something stranger is happening.

This is a compelling story that combines elements of Le Carre and the traditional ghost story. The world of 'spooks' meets real ghosts, in other words. Cowan and his old friend Benson, who tries to provide reassurance, are convincing, rounded characters - men who have done questionable things but see themselves as patriots, decent blokes. As Cowan encounters more phantoms from his past we share his anxious, boxed-in feeling, and when Benson is drawn into the weird 'conspiracy' it feels right.

Fans of old-school ghost stories might not like this one so much as its predecessors, as it probes old wounds many of us have tried to forget. But it's a memorable story, as unrelenting as history itself. And that almost brings us to the end of the book, but I shall return soon with my view of one more tale.

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