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The International Writers Magazine: Reviews

Gallows Lane by Brian McGilloway
Macmillan New Writing
ISBN: 978 -0-230-70769-6
Diana Betherwick review


What is it that makes a really good crime novel? Obviously the plot has to be taut and full of suspense, complete with the requisite twists and turns. Naturally the characters need to be sufficiently interesting for a reader to care what happens to them. This is where many a crime writer has come unstuck. Avoiding cliché is not easy and the flawed detective is perhaps the most common crime fiction cliché of them all. Alcoholism, adultery or just plain dishonesty have all featured heavily in the police procedural to the extent where it is almost an expectation.

Brian McGilloway, however, the writer of a new crime series set in the Irish borderlands, seems to have managed a new direction.  Although his central character DI Ben Devlin is by no means perfect, he is at least refreshingly normal. Married with two children he is neither a drunk, nor a womaniser, but is not averse to rule breaking if it helps him to catch a criminal. Devlin’s past is referred to throughout, but in a subtle way – enough to give us an insight into his motivations, but not so much that we learn all about him in one go. His is a story that will be told over the series as the character develops. Ian Rankin did the same in his Rebus books and there are a number of similarities between the two authors and their central characters.

Both know how to tell a compelling story and create lifelike characters, good and bad but never all one and not the other. Their crimes feel real and the effect on others is seen as an important and necessary part of the story.  Where they differ though is in a sense of place. Rankin uses Edinburgh as a canvas, layering it with colour and atmosphere. Such a talent is rare indeed in a crime writer and perhaps one might argue that it is not vital to such a plot based genre.  Having said that though it is surely the creation of a sense of place that makes a crime novel stand out among its many competitors, in what is after all a crowded market. When that place is Ireland and its borders, then its lack is not just unfortunate but unforgivable; an opportunity squandered. There are some touches but they are not developed. It is almost as if McGilloway intended to add description but became gradually overwhelmed by the other aspects of character and plot.

Gallows Lane is the second in the series, Borderlands being the first. In the novel Devlin is faced with a number of personal and professional challenges and such is the quality of the writing that we really care about how he deals with them. The plot is satisfyingly complex with multiple strands, all of which are elegantly resolved at the conclusion of the novel. But it is in the central character of Devlin and those immediately surrounding him where the true strength of the writing lies. From Olly ‘Elvis’ Costello, Devlin’s crumpled, hasbeen boss, on the verge of retirement, to Kerr, the recently released armed robber who found Jesus in prison and is apparently trying to make amends for past sins, each character is carefully drawn to the extent that you feel as if you have encountered them yourself. Every blemish, every hint of regret at what might have been is beautifully described.

Gallows Lane then is a rare thing – a crime novel that you want to read more than once. I know the ending, but I want get there all over again taking my time, having got the whodunit and why out of the way and allowing myself to take in the skilfully created nuances. If there was a greater sense of place this would be an even more rewarding experience, but still it is great read and an addictive one too. I’ll definitely be putting an order for the first in the series as well as the next, Bleed a River Deep, which is already available. McGilloway has drawn me in as Rankin did before him and having had to bid goodbye to Rebus I’m looking forward to a long and rewarding relationship with DI Ben Devlin.
© Diana Bretherwick December 2009
Diana teaches Criminology and has been awared her MAsters in Creative Writing



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