Take a Shot: Luke Block on The Ultras, Eoin McNamee

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.

Bad Deal

They were across the border at last. No checkpoints, no patrols and best of all, no local bumpkins out dog-walking or shagging in their cars. The night was theirs.

Detective Chief Inspector Ryan Kelly pulled the car off the road and turned down a narrow bumpy track into Hanging Hill Wood. He rolled to stop by a fallen Larch tree and killed the engine.

‘You think they’ll come?’ said Queenan.

Kelly didn’t answer. He lifted the radio handset out of its black plastic cradle and pressed the comms button twice. Then once. Then three times more. He waited five minutes and then repeated the pattern.

Darkness gathered around them as the car clicked and cooled in the freezing night air. And with these shadows came his doubts – what was this, a professional gamble? A stroke of genius? His biggest mistake? An unblemished record, thirty years of service with a retirement and a pension all thrown into the pot for one man.

‘They’ll come,’ said Kelly eventually, to himself more than to Queenan. Self-assurance never came easily.

But they did come. He saw movement to the front of the car, about twenty feet away. Two men emerging from the thick undergrowth, moving slowly and carefully as if on patrol. Both of them armed, as he’d expected. As British Special Forces always were this far south. Both men raised their weapons when they saw the car.

‘Jesus Christ,’ said Queenan. Kelly felt his stomach twist. He’d never had a gun pointed at him before. Being a desk jockey, a chair moistener the worst you got was a bollocking phonecall from the Chief Inspector.

Kelly took a breath and opened the car door. Easy does it. He stepped out onto the trackway with his hands up.

‘Easy now boys,’ he said softly, ‘DCI Kelly. Ryan Kelly from Castlereagh CID.’

The two men remained completely still. Kelly noticed one of them had trained his rifle on the car, on poor Queenan, while the other kept his sights straight onto him.

It was then he saw movement to his left. Another two figures coming out of the scrub, one dressed the same as these boys in front, the other a civilian.

His man, the prize.

The soldier marched his prisoner to front and centre before kicking the back of his leg. He went down on his knees with a crack, sobbing behind a rough black hood that had been tied around his neck with rope. The poor bastard was ragged, like he’d been dragged for days through the Enniskillen countryside. Which he probably had. Poor bastard.

‘How do I know this is my man?’ Said Kelly, aware he was coming off ungrateful. Not good, especially when there were two big guns pointed at your head.

The hood was untied and removed. The third soldier producing a red-filtered flashlight that shone onto the face of Gary McKinney. McKinney all the way from Belfast. All the way from the IRA.

‘Proof enough?’ Said the soldier, ‘now the money.’

Kelly motioned to Queenan who stepped out of the car with the sports bag. He walked slowly to a spot in the middle of the track and laid it down.

‘Open it.’

Queenan bent down and unzipped the bag. Bundles of Euros held up to the faint red light.

‘It’s all there,’ said Kelly, ‘four hundred grand. Unmarked like you asked.’

The soldier stepped close to Kelly. His face was scarred with the grimy remains of camo paint, ‘I know where your office is. And your wife’s hairdresser on Porton Road.’

Kelly nodded and took hold of McKinney, pulling him back to the car. He could have done without that last bit. The three men gathered their cash and disappeared into the night.

McKinney was a mess but he would make it. Queenan forced some water into him and Kelly shuffled a cigarette from his pack. He lit it and rammed it into McKinney’s blood-thickened mouth.

‘Welcome back Gary boy. We missed you alright.’

Kelly smiled and started the car. They had pulled it off.

They were pulling out onto the main road when Queenan flicked the switch and from below, deep within the black forest, came the explosion.


It was a bunch of fishermen who finally found Billy Tate’s drowned body. A small, agitated knot of anglers crowding around a humped black shape that had been dragged out of the water and onto a concrete towpath. Behind Lewisham Asda and the London Bridge to Ladywell trainline Tate was born. Amongst the dogshit and the used johnnies. Slimy, wet and bloated up, Billy’s rebirth was from water thick with plastic bags and shopping trolleys, scattered newspapers and flyers floating like scum. I was amazed there was anything alive worth catching in there. Perhaps these guys were not fishing after all, but doggers waiting for the evening rush.

I was on the opposite side of the canal, squatting by the rusting metal lockhead and smoking a roach, watching as one of the men took a brave step forward to inspect the corpse, prodding with a stick before turning it over like a line caught Tench. Another was bent over and honking his guts into the canal while the rest, panic in their throats, tried to call the services.

If he smelled bad, Billy Tate must have looked a whole lot worse. Two weeks in the drink with the rats eating the soft bits and the eels eating the hard. It would make Ashton Kutcher look like Herman Munster so Billy had no chance – he was plenty ugly before he took that final dive.

I had to get closer though. Watching this caper unfold from the other side might be fun but it wouldn’t get me my phone back and the blues and twos would be here in under ten.

I took the iron bridge over the canal and headed towards the group. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to get at that SIM and I had no inclination to explain myself to these goons. The corpse in front of them should be distraction enough.

I got to the body before anyone clocked me, and I started searching. Breathing through clenched teeth. Quick as you like. The guts of a dead donkey was Calvin Klein compared to this filthy shitbag.

Black gunk and reams of river slime slid out of his pockets as I hunted for the Nokia. I glanced at his face and wish I hadn’t: a bloated sack, white and lumpy like rotted jellied eels. It turned my gut as finally, thankfully, the phone slipped into my filthy hand. Another birth. I delivered me a fucking prize baby.

And then a hand on my shoulder. Puker had sorted himself out and was mouthing something about the police. I stood up and before he could speak again I hit him once in the abdomen. Just hard enough to send him back into the canal, where he hit the water with a solid DUNK. A slam dunk.

It kicked off – sirens arriving, screaming at the top of the embankment as the men in front of me realised what had happened to their buddy. Uniform racing down the slope to my position on the side of the canal. And still the drowned body of Billy Tate at my feet like some rejected offering.

I moved fast, the phone gripped in a fist, past the slow hands of the fisherman who were scrabbling at the greasy water’s edge. Up towards the police who were running fast down the bank. Three of them with their bright yellow jackets like targets you couldn’t miss. I put my hand on the pistol grip as I sprinted up, the voices of the men behind me, trying to warn the uniform.

But they didn’t need warning. They saw me, they recognised me, they deferred to me. I held up my warrant card as they raced past, screaming at the men by the waterside to stand still and that they were under arrest.

I kept running, head down, all the way to the top until I reached the black BMW that was parked behind the patrols. Zabel’s car waiting for me and the phone.

Three taps on the smoked glass and the driver laid out a fat palm. I passed him the handset and with a smile he started the engine.