The book takes place shortly after WW I. Tensions between the Army, IRA, and local cops are horrible, with each shooting the other almost at will. Going out after curfew risks being shot by either side.
Peeler is the derogatory word for policeman in Ireland. The book begins in 1920 with the discovery of a woman's body splayed out on the side of a hill, naked and tarred and feathered with the word "Trator" [sic] written on a plank on her chest. Being a policeman (RIC for Royal Irish Constabulary) in the "troubles" was a terrifying job and before they could inspect the body they had to have an army patrol search the hillside for potential snipers and ambush. But the IRA wants to know who did the crime as well. The signature of the killing is an ice pick through the back of the brain. And then similar killings happen.
The summer 2008 issue of Mystery Review Journal has a very interesting article by Jim Doherty ("Just the Facts: Mole to Manhunter") that discusses the relationship between the RIC and the British government. His article is very helpful in sorting out the intricacies of the relationships of the RIC, Black and Tans, Irish Volunteers and the Reserve forces. There are a bewildering number of abbreviations. He notes,
"As a policeman myself, I’m, at best, ambivalent about this strategy, but I can understand it. The fact is the main armed force maintaining British rule in Ireland was not the Army, but the police. Indeed, the most infamous enemies of the Irish Volunteers during the War for Independence, the notorious Black and Tans, were not a branch of the British Army, as is commonly supposed, but the Reserve Force of the RIC. Moreover, if you regard yourself as being at war, and the war you have to fight is a guerilla war against an occupying force, cops are, frankly, legitimate military targets. During World War II, would French resistance fighters, for example, have been wrong to target Gestapo officers, or even collaborating Surete officers, on the grounds that they were cops, not soldiers? Or were members of the Gestapo just as legitimate a target as, say, members of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS, or the Luftwaffe?
I don’t mean to suggest that officers in the RIC or the DMP were comparable to the Gestapo. That would be not only fatuous, but terribly unjust. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that the British-backed police in Ireland played essentially the same role there that the German-backed police did in occupied France. And, if members of the Irish Volunteers, soon to be known as the Irish Republican Army (and known today as the “Old IRA,” to distinguish it from later groups using the same name), sincerely believed that their war for independence was justified, then it followed that those British-backed police were legitimate targets."
O'Keefe is a dedicated cop and goes where the leads take him. Unfortunately they lead him to waters where the powers that be, i.e. the British, would rather not have them go. And the IRA want the killer caught as well. And he has to control his men from beating up civilians who they think are responsible for allowing ambushes of their men. It's a mess.
McCarthy does a very nice job of creating an atmosphere of the geography and time. I hope he writes more of Sean O'Keefe.