New Island, €10.99
The late 1970s, a small Donegal village. Local publican Roarty kills his barman with a whack of an encyclopaedia to the head, for reasons soon revealed. He buries the body in a bog, certain he’s committed the perfect crime but terrified he’s overlooked something. Then a blackmail demand arrives, putting the heart crossways in Roarty. A severed foot follows. Out of his mind with panic, he begins to suspect visiting English engineer Potter, and wonders if his should be the next body destined for the bog…
If ever proof was needed that art is not a meritocracy, and success relies more on luck than talent, you’ll find it in Patrick McGinley’s Bogmail. First published in 1978, reissued by New Island, this is not just a great crime novel but great work of literature.
That’s by the highest standards. Crime aficionados often claim their genre is artistically comparable to classic literature, which usually isn’t true. But Bogmail is wonderful: lyrical, astute, with a psychological depth and philosophical/theological heft equal to Dostoyevsky or Greene.
Yet it remained unheralded and virtually unknown. I’d never heard of book or author until recently, although BBC adapted it in 1991, a series TG4 recently reran.
How is this possible? McGinley is a tremendous writer. He creates great characters, fully fleshed-out and believable. Their interactions with each other, and the murky depths of their inner lives, are thrilling and moving.
From a plot perspective, it’s similar to Francis Iles’ seminal 1931 mystery Malice Aforethought, in that we know the killer from the off; less “whodunit” than “will he get caught?” Still, there is genuine tension, tightening like a noose, as Roarty fights to keep it together until he can divine the blackmailer’s identity.
What really sets Bogmail apart is the writing quality. It could have literally no story and remain an enthralling read, such is McGinley’s skill and vision.
As well as Dostoyevsky and Greene, parts of the novel read like Italo Calvino, others like Flann O’Brien, though without the self-conscious playfulness – this is a deadly serious book at its core. (Having said that, it’s hilarious in parts, especially the pub conversations.)
Though Bogmail flows smoothly, some of the language has a sort of charming formality to it; it’s almost genteel at times, in the best tradition of Christie and other cosy mysteries. The book is peppered with obscure words, archaic phraseology, technical terms, dollops of Hiberno-English. None of this is showy, but fits seamlessly into, and serves, the narrative entire.
The first piece of advice any good writer gives to a wannabe is: read as much and as widely as you can. Bogmail was clearly written by someone who has read a lot. And for us, there’s the added pleasure of a great book set in Ireland: the familiarity enriches its universal themes.
Bogmail has an appropriately ambiguous ending – it chimes with an earlier scene, where a piece of music reminds Roarty of life’s fundamental uncertainty – but there’s nothing ambiguous about the sheer brilliance of this novel. Like a disinterred bog body it’s now enjoying a second life; maybe there is justice after all, in art if not law.
- First published in the Irish Independent April 6