Like good friends and lovers, some books just find you at the right time and when you need them the most. I found The Ultras, a brutal 2004 novel by the Irish writer Eoin McNamee, in a battered and dusty second hand bookstore in my hometown of Gravesend. Sitting alongside the Grisham and the Rankin and the Cornwell, it stood out with its distinctive cover – the burnt out car, corpse-like rotting on the side of a country lane. I had never heard of the author and the blurb wasn’t typical of the thriller genre. It felt much more real.
At the time I was struggling with my first book and I needed something other than the usual crime fiction. A book that would disrupt my routine, challenge me, give me something to take a shot at. This book, coming out of a junk shop on the bad side of town, hit my writing nerves like a shot of pure adrenaline.
The Ultras is loosely-based on fact. During the 1970s the British government was engaged in a war of attrition on the streets of Belfast. Police, soldiers, paramilitaries all spinning webs and setting traps. During this ‘dirty war’ a British soldier named Robert Nairac was killed, supposedly by the IRA, on a dark and miserable night in 1977. Nairac was alleged to be an undercover member of the Special Air Service and there still remains great mystery about his role in the Troubles, including the manner of his death in the woods of County Louth. McNamee uses the violent murder of Nairac, and the subsequent police investigation, to base his story upon. Who can be trusted in a world where there are no boundaries? The police and the government are a violent cartel and offer us no moral centre. McNamee himself gives us no answers and no security – all of his characters are low-lifers that exist in the shadows, in the smoky corridors of police stations and among the battered population. Everyone is looking over their shoulder and, as the book progresses, we’re drawn further into a noir-tinged world of sad-eyed hookers that are trained as spies. Men boasting and fighting in pubs. The army beating down on a population living in siege warfare conditions.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the police and the army are encouraging and supporting Loyalist paramilitary gangs – the so-called Ultras. This is now a civil war with Nairac emerging as a martyr figure. His body is never found and thus takes on the status of icon.
McNamee’s prose is beautifully stark, even poetic at times, and yet he retains a brutal edge. Especially in the scenes of ultra-violence and menace. Teenagers are shot by high-velocity rifles and maimed from shotgun kneecappings. Brutal punishments involve dogs, ropes and iron bars. The police and the army watch it all from the safety of bullet-proof glass.
The Ultras came at the right time for me and changed the way I write. Now I want my characters to be caught in the moral maze, I want the good guys to go bad at the drop of a bribe. I want to push my plots into different and interesting places.
Like good friends and lovers, The Ultras came into my writing life at just the right time and changed it for the better.