It is as gripping as a thriller, except that this isn’t fiction but cold, spine-tingling reality, with a worthy purpose running through it. This is Cobain’s route to find some understanding — even some closure — for us all in the morally bewildering underground war between Republicans and Unionists, with British Army soldiers caught in the middle, that split the benighted province for decades.
Though scrupulously even-handed, Cobain doesn’t shy away from telling a good story, using deft lyrical flourishes and narrative teases, and he expertly marshals both quotidian detail and the broad social backdrop as he builds up to the shooting itself, three-quarters of the way through the book. Much of its remainder is devoted to the arrest and interrogation of those directly responsible, and for all Cobain’s studied neutrality, he leaves a strong impression of outrage and disgust in his detailed accounts of police torture at the notorious Castlereagh Holding Centre.
The book does not spare in describing the brutality visited upon different groups – from targeted police officers to casually brutalised working-class nationalist men – nor in acknowledging the ambiguity of the uneasy settlement left behind. The author is careful not to let overt moral judgment intrude on his account – other than his inability to hide his contempt for the tub-thumping martinet Roy Mason, the then Labour Northern Ireland secretary.
Cobain’s restraint is not a failing. There is plenty of space for the reader to come to a decided moral response. Understanding the complexity of our past does not mean we ignore the obscenity of it.
More than 3,700 deaths occurred in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, but Ian Cobain, the former Guardian investigative journalist, focuses on just this case. In this compelling, forensic account of a murder among many, Cobain surveys the broader truths of the Troubles through the granular detail of one tragedy.
Throughout, his style is brisk and his tone level-headed, the violence he chronicles often evoked through spartan, but chillingly descriptive, detail. Of the aftermath of the IRA bombing of the La Mon hotel restaurant, which happened on 17 February 1978, just a few months before the murder of Millar McAllister, he writes: “Twelve people, including three married couples, died in the blast. All were Protestant. The dead were so badly burned and shrivelled by the flames that firemen thought initially that some of them were children.” Hell is in the details.