The Abstainer by Ian McGuire review – 'The Wire by gaslight'

Marcel Theroux
·4-min read

Ian McGuire’s gripping historical thriller reminds us that long before the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, there were the Manchester Three. In November 1867, three Irish nationalists were hanged before a large crowd from a gibbet erected on the walls of Salford prison. They’d been fitted up for the murder of a police officer shot through the eye two months earlier. Outrage over a terrible crime led to the railroading of these innocent men, and perpetuated a cycle of injustice, martyrdom, radicalisation and terror.

McGuire draws on these events for his third novel The Abstainer, a followup to 2016’s Booker-longlisted The North Water. He begins on the eve of the three men’s execution. In an office with the “homely barracks-tang of stewed tea and Navy Cut”, Manchester police brood over the possibility of reprisals. The newly industrialised city is teeming with Irish immigrants, many of whom harbour republican sympathies. It’s a tense, chilly opening, full of ominous portents of the retaliation to come. From the off, the crisp, purposeful prose gives us the reassuring sense that we’re in the hands of a writer at the top of his game who is keen to unfold a story: “Bright flames from a dozen watch fires glint orange off the black and boatless Irwell. Inside the Town Hall on King Street, James O’Connor knocks the rain from his bowler, unbuttons his topcoat and hangs them both on the iron hooks by the recreation room door.”

O’Connor is the novel’s titular character: a teetotal Irish police officer who harbours grave doubts about the wisdom of attempting to suppress the Fenians with violence. “It is hard detective work and good judgment that will win this fight, he believes, not exhibitions of bombast or cruelty. Yet cruelty and bombast is what the English prefer.”

As the only Irishman in the police department, O’Connor is an outsider, able to move freely among Manchester’s large Irish population. From his network of informers, he soon learns that the Fenians are preparing to escalate. They’re bringing over a veteran from the US civil war, a man named Stephen Doyle, to carry out a spectacular but as yet undetermined act of terror. The stage is quickly set for a battle of ruthlessness and cunning between the two émigré Irishmen.

Ian McGuire evokes the pungent atmosphere of a teeming industrial city.
Ian McGuire evokes the pungent atmosphere of a teeming industrial city. Photograph: Awakening/Getty Images

The book is written with the vividness and economy of a screenplay, unfolding through a series of sharply observed scenes full of cliffhangers, misdirection and reverses. Its lovely, rhythmic prose evokes the stinks of the Victorian city, its factories, rat-baiting arenas and slaughterhouses. McGuire dwells with fascination on the process of police work; in the breadth of its sympathies and its curiosity about detection and surveillance, the novel reminded me of the best police procedurals – The Wire by gaslight.

McGuire does everything well: evoking the pungent atmosphere of a teeming industrial city, recreating the period in a way that resonates with our own time without seeming preachy, and writing sharp dialogue that crackles with subtext. We’re dropped into the milieu and expected to pick things up as we go along, making the strangeness of the world more intriguing and the parallels with the present more urgent.

You might argue that a game of cat and mouse between an alcoholic cop and his scarred, implacable antagonist is not exactly breaking new ground in a thriller, but one of the pleasures of this book is that it reworks familiar tropes in surprising ways. What separates the two men on different sides of an ideological conflict is really a matter of psychology and temperament. O’Connor, the abstainer, attempts to forgo the intoxication of both alcohol and righteous violence: “He feels uncertainty and emptiness and occasionally, growing between the two, like a weed between flagstones, a frail and incongruous kind of hope.” His opponent Doyle is not a simplistic baddie, but we do sense that something dark and narcissistic supports his capacity for bloodshed.

The architecture of the book is so close to a typical Hollywood three-act structure that it can’t be accidental. For a moment, this worried me: the third acts of thrillers are notoriously hard to pull off. As the conflict narrows, the stories tend to become stereotypical. I had visions of O’Connor and Doyle chasing each other around a derelict cotton factory, firing pistols at shadows and saying: “Don’t you get it? You and I are the same!”

Thankfully, while adhering to some of the conventions of the thriller, the book’s final act manages to be both satisfying and oblique, rooted in possibilities raised by the specific biographies of its characters. The ending is replete with consolation and irony. While never being so clumsy as to carry any overt message, it also hints at the seductive combination of transcendence and delusion that lies behind the promises of all world-changing ideologies.

The Abstainer is published by Scribner (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.