In the prologue of this historical novel, Anne Emery reveals that the title is derived from a Latin phrase inscribed on the Four Courts in Dublin, fiat justitia ruat caelum. Transcribed in English it means “let justice be done though the heavens fall.” It’s a fitting title for a book starring a Catholic priest and a lawyer, both who are consumed by righting wrongs in Northern Ireland.
This book is set in Belfast 1995. Though the IRA has called a ceasefire, it’s still an uneasy time. Centuries of violence and hatred have left a legacy of vengeance that is unforgettable, and for some, unforgivable. Everyone has been affected in some way; most have lost family members, through death and imprisonment. It is a difficult conversation and I applaud Anne Emery for her courage. This could not have been an easy book to research and to write, and is, at times, not easy to read.
Much of the story is based on historical events, and be forewarned: the tale is told by Republican characters from a Republican point-of-view. Though we sometimes hear that horrible crimes were committed by both sides, most events depicted were perpetrated by Orangemen—Protestants loyal to Britain who wanted to keep their border (their wall) and a divided Ireland. The brutal beatings in Loyalist prisons. The Catholic Republican martyrs who died in Kesh while enduring hunger strikes to make their point. These were Nationalists who wanted the British out of Ireland, the border gone, and a free self-determining Republic that included the entire island, all thirty-two counties.
This is a timely book release, given the looming threat imposed by Brexit. If the right deal is not struck between the EU and Britain by the March 29 deadline, the physical partition between north and south, that fell after the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, could rise again with British troops and all the anguish that divides a people.
It is this highly charged emotional backdrop that fuels the question: can justice be done?
The two main characters in this story are both determined to right past wrongs and see justice done. This book is part of a series, the Collins-Burke Mysteries and is actually Book Ten. Having not read any of the others—which are set in Nova Scotia where Collins and Burke live—I read it as a stand-alone. The characters are developed well enough, and we see them working away from home, navigating a hostile environment.
While working in Belfast on a farm equipment case, Monty Collins gets caught up in trying to solve the 1992 murder of a Republican, which has left the man’s family destitute. Because his death has been deemed an accident—Eamon Flannigan was drunk and fell off a bridge so the story goes—his family can claim no financial compensation. Out of the goodness of his heart and his pocketbook, Monty becomes obsessed with finding out what really happened out there on the bridge that night. If he can pin Flannigan’s murder on someone, he can, at least, save this family from financial ruin. The same night near the same bridge, an IRA gunman was executed by an Ulster man.
Meanwhile, Father Brennan Burke is living with his cousin Ronan’s family in Andersontown, a Republican community southwest of Belfast. Ronan Burke is a leading man in the IRA—the man his supporters would hail as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) if ever they had the chance to create a new, peaceful Ireland. He’s tough and he’s loved. He’s also a prime target who travels with bodyguards, and the ghosts of his past, and his son’s, arise to haunt him. Ronan is investigating an unsolved bombing from 1974 that killed many civilians—one of whom was Father Burke’s best mate. The suspects are all dead but one—a man who’s just returned to Belfast, and the Burkes are intent on bringing him to justice.
Emery’s writing is impeccable, sophisticated and polished; the accents subtle enough to set the reader in Belfast without sounding staged or overdone. Though politically complex, Emery has a way of making this war accessible, even understandable. The gritty details are difficult to read. She sets us down in the thick of it, with all the graffiti, the ruins, the prison beatings, and massacres. At times, you can almost smell the smoke of the bombs, feel the despair, taste the blood. And in the end, when the heavens fall and come crashing down around Father Brennan, his realizations link all the puzzle pieces together. For at the heart of this book is a political murder mystery rife with red herrings.
As reviewed in the Ottawa Review of Books, February 2019