The man in a white coat

Robert McCracken

A literary portrait of Belfast based crime author Robert McCracken

by Erik Empson

Robert McCracken is the last author I meet in the Irish leg of our literary tour. I left Carrickfergus and spent the night in a small coastal town on Red Bay, before the next day climbing Trostan, a modest peak at 550m but the highest point in County Antrim. The route took me through commercial pine forest, beneath which little grows except that which lives on decay, and after trudging to reach its peak through thick moss speckled with bright red fungi, the air thick with mist and the scent of peat, with the smell of knee-deep mud a lingering unwelcome companion I am ready for the fresh sea air I know the Giant’s Causeway will afford me.

Giant's causeway

Suitably refreshed, I head the next day to the outskirts of Belfast. We’ve elected to meet in a hotel lounge and Robert has picked a seat that gives a stunning view over the lough, and a beeline of sight through at least two high-ceilinged rooms, to the hotel entrance. This is a man who thinks ahead. We launch into our conversation like two stags, each with much to recount, and only after butting against one another a couple of times do we settle into the pitted no-man’s land of Robert’s working life.

At first Robert hurdles over the details of his career as a food scientist. I get the sense he is used to people feigning interest, but I want to know the man and I am sure this is a big part of him. And it interests me, no end. Ultimately, beyond the way we burn our calories, and whatever our genes have decided for us, it is what we put into our bodies that dictates how long the clock will tick, and whether it will be a well-oiled mechanism or click and clunk. And readers will perhaps be curious to know that one reason the hands on the dial are still turning for them in this regard comes down to people like Robert. When they first hear the term mass spectrometry, like me, they might think of zombie movies, not the patient study of foodstuffs and all the alien additives on the molecular level. This work, over the years, largely funded by the EU has kept all sorts of nasties at bay. And Robert has been a big part of that.

I sense Robert wants to rush through this no-man’s land because he’s put it behind him, and fair enough, really, our connection is after all the crime fiction he writes, not the innocuous man in a white coat. But if he were to begin to pretend that the studious and academic side of him didn’t inform at least some of his approach to writing, I’d already feel comfortable enough in his warm and jovial presence to take him up on it. His work was forensic mystery solving but on an intellectual level – one example being tackling the global issue of the contamination of poultry and shellfish with nitrofuran antibiotics – that would probably bore the pants of most people. So let’s talk about his fiction.

On Amazon, Robert’s books fall into Northern Irish crime, and have dominated the bestseller lists there for much of this year, jostling for position with our own Linda Hagan and the likes of Andrea Mara and Claire McGowan. Even though his DI Tara Grogan series is set for the most part in Liverpool, he almost always introduces a character or another connection with his home city of Belfast, where he has lived for most of his life – now on the outskirts. It’s not an issue. Liverpool is closer to Belfast than London, and I don’t just mean in the manner a crow flies. It has similar estates, and the fictional one in which Tara Grogan is introduced in AN EARLY GRAVE, is actually modelled on one he knows from home. Robert’s approach to writing – sorry, science again – allows for abstraction, and one of the wonders of this, beyond simple juxtapositions of the particular and the universal, is the ability to take what works from one setting and transpose it to another.

AN EARLY GRAVE is unorthodox for a murder mystery. At first the book centres on an individual whom we know neither as a victim nor a criminal, but a strange, isolated recluse who lives on the borders of society, and frequently, whether by local youths or the powers that be, the subject of attempts to push him over the edge. He forms an unlikely alliance with Grogan. He has information the detective needs, but it comes at a price. He wants her to prove an injustice. So begins a narrative that treads through the boggy waters of a neglected housing estate, another man-made monstrosity in which little lives except that which grows on the dead, Zombies again?, and through mutual mistrust and burgeoning fascination, a climax is reached that shocks the reader to the nucleal core.

Robert is working on another series, this time set in Belfast, although Tara Grogan will continue her perilous journey through the criminal underworld. We discuss whether the setting is off-putting to readers and it is food for thought. It doesn’t conjure up the most positive images, although the city itself is certainly growing out of its past, embracing youth culture and stylish eateries. Indeed a recent BBC 3 sketch I saw has a woman forecaster switching accent and stereotype as she moves around the British Isles. Most are fairly benign but when the presenter gets to Belfast, she intones “sit down right now, I’m gonna fucking smash your head in” before moving to Wales and sheep and… you get the idea. Food for thought, but I eat all my broccoli.

It is a familiar instruction to authors to write of what they know. One I often rail against because imagination is as important a component of creative writing as representation. And authors often trip up on this because the particular, or the parochial to use another term, only makes sense in the shadow of a universal, and the latter only has validity because of its instances. Whether it is his science background or genuine curiosity about the world – he shares my interest in military history and ecology, and reads widely – Robert walks this tightrope without teetering. Good crime mystery fiction works not because it is totally unique, but because it shares certain common tropes with other books in the genre – a grasp of these elements is fundamental, and Robert knows his periodic table. To be a success, however, it delivers flavour and character from a chef who has fed from life’s plate. And in Robert’s case, he knows to the microscopic level what’s in his petri dish.

An Early Grave by Robert McCracken

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who was born just south of the border but lived for many years in Belfast, is a powerful raconteur of real life without frills – the parochial and the mundane. His words offer signage for where I am heading.

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

We need the specialism of science, the immersion into character, as part of a wider ecosystem of healthy knowledge – culture. Robert does not cast his net wider than his reach, though modesty perhaps prevents him pushing further. One of our many digressions is into deforestation due to meat consumption, and I think, he is a little unaware of just what untapped potential his fluency in the pathologies of the world has. He recounts with a certain embarrassment how his studies were held back because he would spend too much time either writing or daydreaming about doing it. Most of this is stuff he has discarded. Maybe he was right to, as his books are so accomplished these past efforts must have been like a ladder kicked away once a height is reached. But I’d wager that without his day job, his hobby turned retirement plan would have come to little.

We leave the comfort of the lounge and head outside for some better light to take a photo or two. We mightn’t have bothered as the sudden chill and darkening sky foretells a rain bomb, one of such ferocity it will have me abandoning plans to climb the mighty Slieve Donard on the morrow, and rush tail between my legs back to England. But we pause to wonder at a motley collection of sculpture in the hotel grounds, a bag of allsorts so eccentric in their dissimilitude that each makes the next all the more ugly.

On departing, Robert says “how nice it is to be part of something”. It is a statement I will genuinely cherish, and I think his analytical eye has spotted the sine qua non of my endeavours. Yet what is he a part of? In one sense, and only in this one sense, in their own terms the authors I represent are very particular, like the statues in the hotel grounds.

But what they share, the universal, is a deep and profound connection: an unsatisfiable will to understand the world around them; a pleasure in making it gasp at the denouement and bay for more; a deep need for justice, for reconciliation and results. To give and entertain.

If the universal, in its monocultural glory of maximised returns, blocks out the light, the whole ecosystem perishes and requires, after harvesting, its dead roots to be sprayed with pesticide and alien elements imported so the shuddering process can begin again. Yet with a multitude of voices cracking through the monotonous drone of algorithmic commerciality, we’ll foster this rich diversity in the shelter of a truly expansive canopy.

Lethal Justice, Robert McCracken’s fifth title in the Tara Grogan series, was published in September. Look out for the next, which will be available before the end of the year.

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