This The Undiscovered Country review feels long overdue, as I have been cheering the book on ever since reading the synopsis back in 2018, but supporting something on Unbound is not like buying from other independent publishers. If one of their books catches your eye, chances are it does not exist yet! You choose a pledge level, with the simplest and cheapest usually offering an ebook or hardback, and others including enticements like tickets to launches (when that is possible again) or the chance to name a character. Make your pledge, pay up and then encourage as many others as you can to do the same and ensure that it hits 100%. Once that happens, the waiting starts… and goes on… Past proof copies, cover design, to press, early reviews and – finally! – your copy arrives, whereupon, if you are like me, this once fiercely-anticipated book will sit on your to read pile for a few days, weeks or even longer.
The Undiscovered Country was well worth the wait. In the West of Ireland during the War of Independence, the discovery of a young boy’s body makes a difficult case for two IRA men, Mick and Eamon, who have been assigned to police work for one of the courts established by the new Republic. With the War continuing, and Eamon recently returned from the Great War, there are not only questions of ethics and divided loyalties to consider, but also that of what one more dead body means when so many have been killed. The two unlikely detectives have been assigned the job as they are both out of step with their own side, Eamon under suspicion from commander Jack O’Riordain for having served in the British Army and Mick because he is from the ‘Black North.’
If you like your historical fiction on the rawer side, more like Peaky Blinders than Foyle’s War, then The Undiscovered Country will slip down like a good pint. Eamon and Mick do most of their investigating in the pub, over games of chess and talk of books and art, exchanging War stories and considering the uncertain future Peace. Yeats, Freud, Tolstoy and Shakespeare are all assessed, with Oedipus and the writings of Casement easily quoted. Doctor Sophia Hennessy (who ‘could tempt the pope’) lends Mick a copy of Sherlock Holmes for inspiration, while – via Eamon – The Undiscovered Country contains the most swear-word laden review of Hamlet ever laid upon a page, one I could have only dreamt of getting away with at school.
Even with the tuition of Holmes, the two of them are perhaps not destined to be the greatest detectives in the world. Mick, having had to drop out of studying law at university because of the British, is the intellectual of the pair, if wet behind the ears. Eamon is more world-weary, with blood on his hands from France, impetuously standing up against what he sees as tyranny back home. Their boss, Peter, sees the court as being as important as the fight against the British in establishing the authority of the new state and replacing the vacuum created by the withdrawing old regime:
It may be difficult to see right now, but what we are doing is vital to creating an actual Republic… Because it’s not killing and “blood sacrifice” that makes a nation. It’s taking care of each other and protecting the weak that does that. What we are doing here can help show the world that we can run our own affairs, that due process and the rule of law will be fundamental to who we are and who we wish to become. And that no one is above the law.’
Divided loyalties are everywhere. Another Volunteer thinks Mick must be a Unionist because he is from South Armagh, his origins being often remarked on, as is his accent. While Mick tries to emphasise that there is one Ireland, everyone else seems happy to indulge in stereotyping of people from just up the road, to the neighbouring counties, to anyone committing the utter ignobleness of being ‘a Dub.’ Investigating a murder and asking the questions necessary to do that takes on a darker hue against the background of the times, when plenty of people have reasons for not telling a nosy pair with dubious origins what they have been up to.
A word on the language, because it is not for those who are a bit shy of the old effing and blinding as it is sometimes known. I found myself wondering whether a county doctor and a parish priest would swear quite this much? Amongst themselves, perhaps, but to those they perceive as lower than them, ruffians and ‘bogmen,’ I am not as sure. F words and gobshites are scattered around like punctuation, and if you aren’t fond of the c word, this may not be the book for you. Reasons are given for everyone’s foulmouthedness (suffragettes, tenements) but that generation kept swearing for when it was really needed, more than is done today. That warning aside, the language does make them seem more modern and remind readers that this time is relatively recent.
McQuade is great as the action and tensions escalate, but also in forensically assessing the state of the new nation, with the pub providing the backdrop for discussions on the ethics and morality of wartime. Eamon tries to claim a moral superiority that is not really his while Mick attempts to piece it together. By the end you will be questioning everyone’s motives and desire for certainty, including your own. Ultimately it is a bit of a fantasy Irish republic, where women are free to love who they want, and the defilers of children are punished. I saw mention on Goodreads that a series is planned, and I hope it is not the last I have read of Mick and Eamon. And, as one green-eyed redhead to another, of Dr Sophia, who deserves her own spin-off, please!
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County Mayo photo by Rizby Mazumder on Unsplash