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The Last Crossing - Dark thriller explores Ireland's Disappeared

The current boom in Northern Irish crime writing reflects the need for stories to help people come to terms with the Troubles, says award-winning writer Brian McGilloway.

The father-of-four was honoured for his political thriller The Last Crossing at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate last week.

Inspired by the "Disappeared", those people abducted, murdered and secretly buried by terrorist groups, his latest book opens with a shallow grave and a chilling execution in a Scottish wood.

We discover the impact on teacher-turned-sacristan Tony and co-conspirators Hugh and Karen.

They have been brought together for the first time in three decades during a ferry trip from Northern Ireland to Scotland to identify the burial site, ostensibly to bring closure to their victim's family.

"One of the compromises of the Good Friday Agreement was that, where bodies of the Disappeared were recovered, any information given to help with that recovery would not be forensically investigated," explains McGilloway.

He said it was a way to allow families to have closure even if there was no justice.

"Then I read that during the recovery of one of the Disappeared, the people responsible for the death had met for the first time in 30 years to try and remember where the body was buried. That was where my book came from.

"I was interested in the actual journey on the ferry to find the body but also the journey across the 30 years - how could each of them reconcile with what they had done?

"So many of my books are about the consequences of violence on family and society as represented by the police.

"This was about the consequences of violence on those responsible for it. It's the worst thing you can do, take someone's life, so how do you deal with it, how do you cope?"

Harrogate festival judge and Channel 4's Packed Lunch star Steph McGovern described The Last Crossing as "a book that stayed with me long after I'd finished". She said it had "very believable three-dimensional characters and a moving story".

McGilloway, 47, published his first novel, Borderlands, in 2007. The Last Crossing is his tenth.

He says there has been a boom in Northern Irish fiction: "When I started 20 years ago there were only really two or three writers - now there's plenty of us.

"Crime writing is about the past and how it impacts on the present. Every crime novel begins at the end of something, whether somebody's life or their story.; "They have a dual narrative - you're moving forward but looking backwards to learn lessons.

"That's what we're trying to do as a society here - and that's why Northern Irish crime writing is so relevant: 'Why did these things happen and how can we make sure they don't happen again?'

"The danger of trying to draw a line under it, no matter how well-meant, is that it stops people learning not to make the same mistakes again."

One of the issues the novel raises is the young people who hark back as if the violence was something to celebrate.

"Channel 4 did a series of interviews focusing on young people from different communities and quite a lot of them were still carrying the anger and resentment of parents and grandparents, even though they hadn't been alive through the Troubles," McGilloway says.

"I was interested in exploring that and trying to work out why people would be carrying those feelings, almost as an inheritance.

"I think there is a sense of identity through family - should you be saying move on, or trying to explore why people feel that?

"The book doesn't offer any answers. It's about Tony trying to get forgiveness and redeem himself in some way.

"We're trying to move forwards but are constantly being drawn backwards. It was important for me that, at the end of the journey, Tony had changed, he had acknowledged his own feelings and admitted them."

At-home celebration: McGilloway's thriller was praised at the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival

At-home celebration: McGilloway's thriller was praised at the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival

There is little doubt the joint challenges of Brexit and coronavirus have disproportionately affected Northern Ireland.

But McGilloway, head of sixth form at Holy Cross College in Strabane, west Tyrone, where he lives with his teacher wife Tanya and their four children Ben, 18, Tom, 15, David, 12, and Lucy, 11, remains optimistic.

"Most people just want to get on with their lives. An awful lot is being made out of sausages and the fact certain types won't be sold here. You don't want to make a problem where one doesn't exist, but there is a sense that Brexit has undone a lot of the work of the peace process."

McGilloway could not attend the festival in Harrogate, supported by the Express, where his novel was highly commended, because two of his children were "pinged" by the Covid-19 app.

The author had a couple of years writing full-time, but after finding "I was writing the same amount and then looking around for something to do", he returned to teaching. He said both jobs "involve my passion for writing and language. It's amazing introducing kids to books you love and seeing them connect".

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