Maverick cop Jolly Macken goes looking for a killer, but accidentally starts a war
Police sergeant Jolly Macken finds it hard to tell his friends from his enemies. When he’s banished to the quiet Irish border village of Blackwatertown, Macken vows to find out who killed the man he’s replacing – even if it turns out to be another officer. But a lot can happen in a week. Over seven days Macken falls in love with the bewitchingly beautiful Aoife, uncovers family secrets, accidentally starts a war and is hailed a hero and hounded as a traitor.
Macken has always had trouble fitting in. As a Catholic, he’s viewed with suspicion by the rest of the mainly Protestant police force. But as a policeman, he’s isolated from his fellow Catholics because he serves the British Crown. When Blackwatertown explodes into violence, who can Macken trust? Which side should he take? Are anyone’s hands clean – even his own? And is betrayal the only way to survive?
The story is set around the fictionalised village of Blackwatertown, which sits in lush countryside on the centuries-old border between Elizabethan and Irish-controlled Ireland and not far from today’s Irish border – currently featuring in its own Brexit drama. The action takes place during a little-known IRA insurgency in the 1950s. The intertwining of fact and fiction is based on murky episodes from Ireland’s past and the author’s own family history. Blackwatertown’s initial sense of calm foreshadows the current uneasy peace in Northern Ireland.
Blackwatertown has been described as LA Confidential meets The Guard. Legendary thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, author of The Day of the Jackal, says Blackwatertown is “a fascinating story with intricate twists and turns” and that Macken’s “position as a Catholic police officer in hardline Unionist RUC is extremely intriguing.” BBC Radio 4 presenter Rev Richard Coles describes Blackwatertown as “extraordinary, abundant, dazzling and full of incident.” Leading BBC journalist and Northern Ireland expert Peter Taylor said Blackwatertown is “engaging and reads really well.” Readers have described Blackwatertown as “exciting”, “moving” and “funny”, and they identify so strongly with the leading characters, that their responses range from “it made me cry” to “it made me want to punch you in the face!” (Please don’t, Barry.)
SUNDAY: Sergeant Jolly Macken didn’t want to be a policeman anymore. He felt hot despite the cool air of the Mourne foothills. The butt of his hand pressed on the polished handle of his baton, not yet drawn. He hated his job. He hated the crowd pushing at his back. He hated the string of men blocking the road ahead. All of them impatient for his signal – the ones behind muttering his nickname. He hated the verbal albatross that had been hung round his neck too. Jolly. Christ!
The stony slopes of fern and heather and gorse would usually lift his heart. The open land a refuge from complication and regulation. He’d feel the tension ebb from his shoulders. The small smile that would quietly creep over his face, unwitnessed. If Macken believed in anything, it was that there was no better place nor way for a man to be at peace than by quiet water, with a rod and line. Alone, but never lonely.
Today was different. Today he was only a hard-faced big man trapped inside a uniform. A stone bounced past his feet. The serenity of this County Down emptiness had been shattered long before. But at this moment of decision, all the shouting and jeering, the drums and the fifes, seemed to fade to silence in Macken’s mind. The violence was about to begin – the striking out at head and body with stone and bar and baton and rifle butt. And he was going to be the one to start it.
(…When the Orange parade he is escorting is blocked by Catholic nationalist protestors, Macken is manoeuvred into leading a police baton charge to clear the road – with the Orange marchers following behind…)
Macken’s cry was the cue for an even bigger volley of stones from behind. The line of policemen became the shape of an arrowhead. Like geese in flight, no constable wished to reach their destination before the leading bird.
Behind them rushed the delighted horde of camp followers. The bandsmen came too – fifes tucked away, drummers still sounding a ragged rat-a-tat-tat. And on came the sober-suited official brethren. Some had discarded their jackets, rolled up their sleeves and pocketed their precious collarettes, the better to get stuck in. Those still clinging to notions of propriety wore expressions of grim concern rather than glee. They advanced with the air of reluctant school prefects, the stout sticks or umbrellas with which they had tapped out their route now raised as clubs.
At least the penetrating rhythm of Big Jim Courtney’s Lambeg had stopped. Big Jim was unharnessing himself, the better to batter rebels with his fists. Two older Orangemen stayed behind to guard the lodge’s fringed banner - its scenes of past atrocities against the Protestants of Ulster a warning never to weaken in future.
The stampede triggered the response Macken had anticipated - a painfully accurate hail of stones into the mob of police and Orangemen.
Here’s me, thought Macken, a Catholic, leading a bunch of bigots against other Catholics trying to defend their village. But on the other hand, I’m a policeman, and those corner boys on the barricade are trying to take my head off.
Baton aloft, yelling, Macken reached the barrier first and came face to face with the smart mouth who’d taunted him before. As he leaped onto a boulder, Macken saw the man was holding a bicycle, preparing to flee the battle he had stoked up. No time for escape now pal, thought Macken grimly. The man glanced back over his shoulder, the blood draining from his face when he saw Macken so close so quickly. But as Macken scrambled closer, the man lifted and swung the bicycle. Then he let go.
Macken put up his arms to protect himself and became entangled in the bicycle’s works. He fell back, his head poking through the triangle of the frame and his baton arm caught in the spokes of the back wheel. The skinny man hared off through the heather as Macken went down hard.
Macken lay there, his face full of pedals and handlebars, as the combined forces of law and Orange Order surged over the barricade, scattering the defenders.
Beefy-faced farmers planted themselves on top of the barrier, leaning forward, hands on their thighs, catching their breath. The back slapping got underway, as they gathered in excited chatter round Big Jim, who sat panting, his vast girth quivering. Macken tried to extricate himself from the bicycle. He hissed in pain as a pedal dug into his side.
Seamus Heaney and me
Wednesday, 22 May 2019
The poetry of the late Seamus Heaney is one of the inspirations for Blackwatertown. I saw and heard him chat and read his poetry a few times in Belfast and London - and then celebrate Ted Hughes at his memorial service at Westminster Abbey. There's a special centre all about him in Bellaghy now, and famous Seamus has all sorts of famous poems. I love his work, but it's Bye-Child that has particular…
Now for the hard part...
Monday, 20 May 2019
Thank you all for taking Blackwatertown to 31 per cent in under a week. The boffins at Unbound (the publisher) say that books reaching 30 per cent funding in 30 days are set fair to succeed. So we're smashing it.
But now for the hard part. I'm feeling the love from all of you who have pledged to support the book and have shared on social media and told other people. The next 69 per cent will be…
Murphy and Princess Elizabeth
Thursday, 16 May 2019
The main man in Blackwatertown, Jolly Macken, is a demoted RUC sergeant in the 1950s. But sure what on earth would I know about that, a young strip like myself? Fair question. I wasn't around then, nor ever in the RUC. But I know some who were. Relations like the fine fella in the picture. It was a bit of a dangerous family tradition.
There was no difficulty finding gunmen back in the day. Swordsmen…
Doggone it! What a ten per center of a first day...
Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Going live on something new can be daunting, even with Unbound rooting for you. Not everything goes right. For instance, my very first backer sent me the money for the first paperback directly, rather than through the website. So, when I lodged it, my name showed up on the list of supporters instead of his. Sorry about that Stan Burridge, official back number one.
Even with Stan's early backing…
These people are helping to fund Blackwatertown.