Irish poet and novelist John McAllister has just released his 2nd novel, The Station Sergeant (Portnoy Publishing, Dublin). His essay on why he wrote this murder mystery follows a brief synopsis of the book.
The Station Sergeant, set in the late 1950s and early 1960s in turbulent Ballymena, Northern Ireland, concerns the discovery of the body of a local farmer. Station Sergeant John Barlow’s investigation hits up against local hoodlums who steal cattle to order, an escaped WWII German soldier, and a new boss who hates Barlow.
Meanwhile, Barlow’s violent schizophrenic wife, his teenage daughter’s waywardness, and his affair with another woman distract him, but will tantalize readers. The Station Sergeant evokes the turbulence of the post-WWII period in Ireland and represents the best elements of classic crime writing. Available now at Amazon.com at The Station Sergreant.
WHY I WROTE THE STATION SERGEANT
By John McAllister
Way back at the start of the “Troubles”, the police in Belfast were being overwhelmed by the scale of the rioting. To help out, officers were shipped in from the country areas. Of course the city police made fun of their “country cousins”, none more so than of a slow moving, slow talking, slow thinking constable from way out in the bogs.
This “country cousin” said nothing: didn’t retaliate, didn’t show annoyance, but when the time came for him to go back to his country station he stopped at the door and looked back.
He said, ‘I mightn’t know much about police procedurals or all this modern policing stuff they teach you boys now. And I might spend more time herding cows off the road than chasing robbers, but I would know if someone had set up a poteen still in the house next to the police station.’
It worked the other way too. A young constable from a police patrol stopped to talk to a farmer. A cockerel jumped onto the wall beside them.
‘That’s a fighting cock,’ said the young constable.
‘It is not,’ said the farmer.
‘I tell you it is.’
‘And what would you, a city man, know about fighting cocks?’
My father kept them,’ said the young constable and walked on with the patrol.
The John Barlow in my book is such a man. He was modelled on a real-life policeman of the same name. In my youth story after story about the “doings” of Barlow were whispered around my home town of Ballymena. He was sly, he was cute, he was sleekit. He had a reputation for being stupid and, according to rumour, he blackmailed the District Inspector to get staying on in Ballymena when the man wanted him posted.
Barlow joined the RIC and stayed on after partition when it became the RUC. He apparently served in Ballymena for forty-five years. Mention him to one of my brothers-in-law and his blood pressure shoots up. Yet an old friend, Harry McLarnon, says, ‘John Barlow, now there was a great man'.
I was at Trinity College Dublin reading for my masters in Creative Writing. I always wrote on the train going to and coming from Dublin, but one night I was really tired and didn’t feel up to it. Rather than surrender entirely to my tiredness I promised myself “ten minutes and then I’ll stop”. I put the pad in front of me with absolutely no idea what I wanted to write about. Something about one of the “Barlow” stories of my youth popped into my head and I wrote it down. Ten minutes and a page of recollections later I had the basis for five stories. Five stories populated by real people from my youth.
Edward Adair “gentleman and drunk by profession” really did exist in the form of two people. Ballymena always seemed to have a tramp who was well known and popular with the townspeople. One of them, like Edward, really did live under a dry arch near Curles Bridge. When he went into hospital the hospital management had to beg people to stop clogging up the phone lines wanting to hear how he was doing and did he need anything. The local papers undertook to publish a weekly update on the tramp’s progress.
The second person that Edward is based on was a pleasant, very well spoken man who lived in digs near my home. He was a cousin of the then prime minister of Northern Ireland and related to the lords O’Neill. When he died suddenly at an early age he was found to have done complex mathematical calculations on the margins of newspapers. We’d all thought him a bit “soft”. In those days none of us had ever heard the expression “idiot savant”.
Ballymena also had a notorious family: utterly polite when sober, demons when drunk and occasionally more sinned against than sinning. Their antics as I grew up gave me the idea for a local family of – shall we say – chancers.
My mother’s mother was a Dunlop. The Dunlops were and are big farmers, leading lights in the local Orange Lodge, town mayors and extremely nice people. Out of sheer devilment I used their name and the ner-do-well Geordie Dunlop and his family were born.
The setting for the stories was easy. I just took Ballymena as I remember it in the fifties and sixties, relocated the real Curles Bridge to the Penny Bridge area and Adair Castle to the site of the new municipal cemetery. River Road really exists under another name but I put two bends in the adjoining river that you will never find on an ordinance map.
The five “Barlow” stories were published in my short story collection, The Fly Pool. Even now, ten years on, people still contact me to talk about the collection and always, always, always they want to talk about Barlow and the things he got up to.
One friend, who shapes a cross with his fingers to ward off evil if I even mention the RUC, kept nagging at me for another Barlow story. Way back I had started a sixth story but abandoned it for various reasons. I went back to that story and somehow a novel grew out of it. A very minor theme in the original version suddenly gripped me and The Station Sergeant as it now stands was born.
I kept John Barlow’s real name in my stories and book, to celebrate and keep alive the memory of a man who strode Ballymena like a goliath in his day. In real life, John Barlow was a mere constable but have I accorded him the long delayed accolade of Station Sergeant.
John McAllister was an Accountant in Practice and a Tax Consultant for forty-five years. He has now retired to become a fulltime writer. He read for an M. Phil. in Creative Writing at the Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. His poems have been published in Europe, Australia and in the USA. His poem “Dog Days” appeared in After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. His collection of short stories, The Fly Pool, was published in 2003 by Black Mountain Press. He is currently working on a second collection. His first novel, Line of Flight, is available for Kindle. His latest novel, The Station Sergeant, from Portnoy Publishing is now available on Amazon.com for Kindle, click here to order The Station Sergeant by John McAllister.