With the publication of his first novel, Bogmail, in 1978, Patrick McGinley was immediately hailed as a major new mystery novelist. What critics were quick to emphasize, however, was the distinctive quality of his works, a quality that raises them above the ordinarily formulaic mystery fare. Although there are mysteries and secrets in his work, these have less to do with “whodunit” than with a study of the minds of the killers and the victims. Bogmail is described as “a novel with murder,” and such a description seems especially fitting for many of his other novels as well. Murders occur, and indeed they propel the plot; they are, however, almost secondary to the novels’ primary investigations of landscape, manners, and customs.
In many of McGinley’s novels the focus is squarely on rural Irish life. In Bogmail, the setting is the village of Glenkeel, County Donegal, where the local pub, the center of nearly all the novel’s action, hums with talk of a persistent drought. Inevitably all conversations turn to the weather and its effect on crops, animals, and humans. The other important setting is the surrounding bog, where the pub owner, Tim Roarty, buries the body of an employee who is corrupting Roarty’s estranged daughter. For the Irish, the bogs are extraordinary landscapes providing not only the turf for their fires but also secrets preserved from lost civilizations. Things are easily lost in a bog, but once recovered, as this body is, they can return to haunt the living.
McGinley is especially expert at capturing the randy, colloquial speech of the rural Irish. Characters speak not only a heavily inflected English but also Irish itself. The topics are, appropriately, those that would most concern country people. Thus, in one case there is a discussion of keeping land in the family, as an old codger refuses to sell his property, fearing that it will be exploited or unappreciated. In another instance, the sexual rapacity of widows, a time-honored theme in all Irish literature, commands attention.
A repeated McGinley theme is also a distinctly Irish one: the role of fantasy in Irish experience. In each novel, truth emerges as an elusive commodity as characters lie, dissemble, or coyly tell stories. In Bogmail, the narrator interrupts a conversation to describe one character “trying to make out if she were being serious, always a problem in Ireland.” At another point in the novel the local police officer remarks that all crime is imaginary in the country.
McGinley uses dreams to show characters leading a double existence. Each of his protagonists, as well as various minor characters, struggle with divided senses of self. In Bogmail, Roarty finds he is becoming a stranger to himself the longer he hides his crime from others.
In Goosefoot (1982), a young university graduate, Patricia Teeling, leaves a family farm in Tallage, County Donegal, for a year in Dublin. Before her departure, she is offered her uncle’s prosperous farm but sets out for the city in search of herself. Throughout the novel she contemplates the differences between city and country living and returns periodically to her hometown. There, she feels free and uninhibited as she wanders the fields and visits the pubs, where discussion of crops and cattle dominate conversation. When Patricia loses the land to a scheming cousin, McGinley could well be revealing the fate of all Ireland—as it loses its connections with its rural origins, it loses itself.
The image of a cracked mirror appears periodically to reveal Patricia’s divided experiences. She is a country girl trying to live in the city; she disdains urban life but eventually grows bored of rural ways when she returns home. She is further divided because she cannot decide what course she wants her life to take.
McGinley liberally laces all of his novels with dreams, as characters wander in and out of consciousness searching for the significance of their existence. In a nation of dreamers, where hard definitions between reality and fantasy continually blur, dream becomes the perfect vehicle for expressing character and action. In McGinley’s hands, dreams presage events, although in oblique or exaggerated ways.
In Goosefoot, the heroine has horrifying erotic dreams. In one, she imagines herself lying astride her naked boyfriend and stabbing him in the heart for no apparent reason. By the end of the novel this dream makes perfect sense as she grows further from him, emotionally and geographically. In another dream she imagines herself a naked captive, tied to a bed over which hangs a long sword. Into the room walks a nude Inspector McMyler, who cuts the cords that encircle her and then stabs her as he approaches for an embrace. In the closing chapter, Patricia Teeling is briefly held captive in McMyler’s room, under the shadow of an immense sword that later impales her as she tries to escape Dublin.
Truth is unstable, as characters dance around one another, never clearly revealing their fundamental natures. Each person creates a persona for the public, leading one character to comment, “In our separate ways we are all would-be novelists.”
One detective, McMyler, is an impostor and ultimately is shown to be the killer himself. Under the guise of being a watchful protector, he invades the victim’s life and eventually murders her. Like the murderers in the other novels, McMyler is a poor man’s Moriarty (in Bogmail, in fact, the detective continually sees his case in terms of a contest between a latter-day Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty), a master criminal who matches wits with the police and often outdoes them.
The Trick of the Ga Bolga
In The Trick of the Ga Bolga (1985), McGinley offers his densest, most intricate view of rural Ireland and its folklore. The novel’s title remains enigmatic...
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