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MisterHobgoblin

Ordinary Decent Criminals

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It’s a little known fact that Lionel Shriver lived in Belfast for 12 years from 1987-1999. I shared a city with her and never knew – OMG.

 

Anyway, shortly into her sojourn in the North, Lionel Shriver published a Troubles novel called The Bleeding Heart – later re-issued under the title Ordinary Decent Criminals. It was not a success. As Lionel Shriver herself acknowledges half way through the book, saying “the North was a tiny, exclusive Hell: only one and a half million people on earth would get your jokes”. So probably writing a book full of jokes about the North designed to offend and alienate all of those one and a half million people in equal measure was never going to end well…

And Ordinary Decent Criminals is very funny. There are caricatures of the various political factions, paramilitary groupings, religious bigots, soldiers, peace brokers and writers. They are universally drunken, mediocre, unfaithful and have flexible morality. Shriver’s central thesis is that the Troubles were not, for the most part, terribly troublesome and the people of the North got off on pretending to be scary hard-men when going to great lengths to avoid actually inflicting real damage. Even the Enniskillen bomb is portrayed as a terrible mistake based on the timer being prepared without taking the end of daylight savings into account. Thus, she seems to argue, the paramilitary activity that did take place was more the work of ordinary decent criminals hiding behind a veneer of political respectability.

The story itself is Estrin, a young American woman who has spent the past decade wandering the globe, landing up running a squalid hoods’ bar in West Belfast. She catches the eye of Farrell O’Phelan, a freelance bomb disposal engineer who has come to be seen as a celebrity-expert on The Troubles, assisting and irritating both traditions in equal measure. Farrell has a plan to bring peace to the North, in all probability paving the way for his schoolfriend Angus McBride to become Secretary of State in a power sharing Executive. The story feels quite convoluted for something that ought really to be straightforward, and does tend to be used as an opportunity for political grandstanding. After a couple of hundred pages, the reader is left feeling that the story is drifting somewhat, whilst the big political point has already been made.

For all that, there are enough wry observations; namechecks of familiar shops and bars; overt references to real people; and a crystallisation of political thinking in the years immediately preceding the actual ceasefires that make ODCs worth sticking with. This is an important slice of cultural history, augmented by a satirical and entertaining glossary at the end that many readers may not notice.

I suspect ODCs is more than loosely autobiographical. Estrin looks very much like Shriver, torn between observing the community and becoming part of it. It is not a perfect novel, but it does demonstrate a deep and mature understanding of both the history and the c.1990 present of Northern Ireland, presumably the product of many afternoons in the Linenhall Library. It offers a different perspective to the many novels written by Northern Ireland’s own authors and supports this perspective with authentic detail.

The novel deserves to be better known, but finding an audience is always going to be difficult. When I asked Lionel Shriver to sign my first edition some years ago, I told her that I loved reading Northern Ireland novels. She replied ruefully that nobody else seemed to.

 

****0

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