A Secret Worth Killing For by Simon Berthon

Review published on April 15, 2018.

Maire Anne McCartney is a teenage in Belfast in the early 1990’s. The Troubles are still very much a fact of life, though there are whispers of peace talks in the air. Her brother Martin is a firebrand IRA commander, her boyfriend Joseph his right-hand man. They are both very much in the hardline, anti-peace talks camp. Maire, on the other hand, is intelligent with the chance of university. She can escape this life if she can just keep her nose out of trouble. When Joseph asks her to help out on a job she’s reluctant, but he’s persistent. Needless to say things don’t go according to plan.

Fast forward twenty-six years and Maire is now Anne-Marie Gallagher, a human rights lawyer in London and prospective Parliamentary candidate. She wins election and is offered a junior ministerial post. A bright future beckons as she’s tipped for greater things. But a body has just been unearthed in an unmarked grave in Ulster while someone from her past makes contact.

The novel proceeds from here in alternating chapters, some in the past some in the present. The chapters in the past are to me the stronger. We follow Maire in Dublin where she’s now studying; she meets a young man, a fellow student and falls in love. But is he all he claims to be? And what of her brother and Joseph who might well be watching over her? In the present, Anne-Marie is almost an entirely different person: glamorous, sophisticated and supremely confidant, yet always afraid her past might catch up with her.

In many ways, this is a great book, Maire, the younger version of the book’s protagonist is an extremely convincing character; Anne-Marie is less likeable, but then that might well have been the intention, for she has honed her armour. It keeps the reader guessing pretty much to the end: is Maire/Anne-Marie an innocent victim or was she more involved in the dark events of her past than she lets on? Is she an agent of the IRA, a Trojan horse penetrating the establishment? Was she, wittingly or otherwise, an agent of the British state, used to destroy the anti-agreement faction of the IRA.

That said, the plot is not a little unrealistic. I can’t really say how without divulging spoilers but while I enjoyed this novel immensely, I did feel that the expense and effort the author portrayed UK intelligence agencies going to protect their assets, even years after they had outgrown their use, did not ring true. Numerous former IRA men have complained in recent years that the British state, rather than providing for them, had abandoned them to their fate (Raymond Gilmour and Martin McGartland, to name just two). Obviously, we only have their word for this and as self-confessed former terrorists some might treat their comments with a pinch of salt. But in A Secret Worth Killing For the author portrays the state as going to extravagant efforts that just stretched credulity.

Having made this critique, however, I must say I read this novel in a matter of days, I really did enjoy it that much. The author is a skilled writer, so much so that even the aforementioned incredulity didn’t really spoil it for me.

James Pierson 4/4

A Secret Worth Killing For by Simon Berthon
HQ 9780008214401 pbk May 2018

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