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27th Dec 2020

Irish crime writer Anthony J. Quinn on the real life inspiration behind his new thriller Turncoat

Keeley Ryan

“Ironically, for such a holy place, the island turned the story into a much more disturbing tale than I had originally envisaged,” Turncoat author Anthony J. Quinn told Her of the setting of his latest novel. 

Turncoat, the Tyrone author’s ninth crime fiction novel, hit shelves late last month. It is a metaphysical thriller about Desmond Maguire, a Belfast police detective who is the sole survivor of a murderous ambush. Forced into a desperate search for a mysterious informer, he soon finds himself headed to a holy island on Lough Derg. It’s a place shrouded in ominous mists, hazy rain and where nothing is as it appears to be at first. 

Maguire is a keeper of secrets, a purveyor of lies and soon finds himself surrounded by enemies disguised as pilgrims. He gets drawn deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the purgatorial island, where he is forced to confront a series of disturbing secrets and ghosts in his own life.

Quinn recent spoke to Her about Turncoat, which he describes as a “pilgrimage through conscience and memory told in the style of an intense spy thriller” — and why he decided to set the novel at Station Island. 

“I tend to write first and research later. The story is the most important thing in the writing process, and often it feels like you’re on the high seas in a boat with a hole leaking water. You have to keep the boat afloat even if that means throwing everything overboard: all your painstaking research, your interesting characters and landscape ideas,” he said, when discussing the inspiration behind Turncoat. 

“This is my ninth crime fiction novel, and right from the start, I had a clear intention of writing a more subversive type of book, one that would tell a meaningful story about the Troubles. I was drawn to the metaphysical detective novel, which tends to feature circular plots, doubles and mysterious texts. Labyrinths and infernal paths abound in metaphysical detective fiction. I chose Station Island’s spiralling prayer paths.”

But Station Island, located on Loguh Derg, wasn’t always going to be a big point in the thriller. The author recalled how he had originally intended for it to be “a good stepping-stone” for Maguire’s journey, “before he embarked on a cat and mouse chase with his informer and Special Branch along the Irish Border.” 

He had originally intended to devote a couple of chapters to the holy island, and set off for there — “partially as research and partially because I’d always wanted to complete the rites of passage pilgrimage” — in the summer of 2018. 

“So in the summer of 2018, I went to the island in Donegal and completed the ritual three days of fasting and praying barefoot during the night, and it struck me that everything I needed for a dark tale of espionage and paranoia was there on the island. I began to envisage the book as a pilgrimage through conscience and memory told in the style of an intense psychological thriller,” he continued. 

“Ironically, for such a holy place, the island turned the story into a much more disturbing tale than I had 

originally envisaged. From that point on I became obsessed with the idea of my unstable detective pretending to be a pilgrim, wandering barefoot, but gumshoe style, in the half light and drizzle of Lough Derg, attuned to the preternatural and haunted by a religious truth he can sense but not grasp or understand. 

“During my first sleepless night, the island’s spiralling prayer paths turned out to be as gloomy and disorientating as the urban labyrinths of Edgar Allen Poe’s metaphysical short stories. However, I had a clear picture in my imagination of Maguire roaming the boundaries of the island, lurching from alcoholic intoxication to romantic yearnings, between despair and hope, light and darkness, religious visions and diabolical encounters with doubles. “

The author also told us about the part of Turncoat that he found the most difficult part to write, and shared an insight into his usual writing process. 

“Beginnings and ending are the easiest part of writing any book. I don’t plot ahead or plan the book. Instead, I let the characters and landscapes develop organically. You don’t write the book you want to write, you write the book that’s in you, the book that emerges gradually over the course of a year or so. Middles are usually trickier,” he said. “Trying to work out a way of getting Detective Maguire off Station Island was the most difficult part. I was worried he’d be doomed to spend all of eternity trapped there.” 

Quinn also shared a little bit about what he has been working on during lockdown — and it’s definitely good news for fans. 

“During the lockdown I had no book events or readings to distract me, so I finished another novel called Murder Memoir Murder, which is currently doing the rounds with publishers,” he explained. “It’s part memoir, part crime novel. Although based on true events, it’s invented from the first word to the last.”

  • Turncoat by Anthony J. Quinn, published by No Exit Press, is available now.