A deftly-rendered history refuses to simplify a messy and tragic periodby Finn McRedmond / October 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
Concluding the opening chapter of Anatomy of a Killing, Ian Cobain recalls a conversation between a BBC reporter and a prisoner in the IRA wing of Long Kesh prison on the outskirts of Lisburn, Northern Ireland. The reporter notices that the inmate—serving life for murder—is reading Tolstoy. When pressed, the young man claims IRA men are as normal as anyone else. “When the reporter commented that normal people did not go around killing other people, the young man pointed out that normal people, elsewhere, did not live in Northern Ireland.”
In this book Cobain, an award-winning journalist, tells the story of one event—the murder of a policeman at the hands of the IRA in April 1978. But refracted through this precisely wrought narrative is an ambitious social and political history of the Troubles, drawing on court files, interviews, police notes and IRA strategy papers.
As Cobain oscillates between intimate portraits of those involved in the murder and the big political forces in Northern Ireland, he shows that there was no singular prototype for an IRA member, and limited shared psychology between those turning to violence. Anatomy of a Killing is a powerful reminder that the Troubles did not happen in a vacuum: the context created a logic that exerted itself on all sorts of people.
Cobain leaves no perspective un-examined: addressing the role of the Irish-American political relationship; the qualities of Jim Callaghan’s cabinet; the looming opposition of Margaret Thatcher; and cultural phenomena like punk.
Cobain mostly avoids making personal comments (though he struggles to contain his contempt for Roy Mason, Northern Ireland Secretary between 1976 and 1979). As a work of investigative journalism, the book can feel somewhat academic and demanding of its reader. But it ranks as a deftly-rendered history that refuses to simplify a messy and tragic period.
Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island by Ian Cobain (Granta, £18.99)