McGarr and the Method of Descartes, by Bartholomew Gill. New York: Viking. 289 pp. $14.95. The mystery novel, as Umberto Eco's ``The Name of the Rose'' demonstrated so conclusively, can be made to carry a lot of freight -- literary, historical, psychological, even philosophical and religious.
Bartholomew Gill has always aspired to write novels in this genre that offer much more than the standard fare of thrilling action or the more subtle ratiocinative pleasure of a well-woven plot. Set in Ireland (where Mr. Gill, an American, was a student) and centered on a highly introspective Irish detective named Peter McGarr, Gill's novels have been distinguished by psychological depth, a vivid sense of Irish landscape and character, and, perhaps most notable, an informed interest in the complex political realities of contemporary Ireland.
``McGarr and the Method of Descartes,'' Gill's sixth novel, takes this fascination with Irish politics an important step further. Focusing on the troubled city of Belfast, this book is more a political novel than a mystery with a political backdrop; its chief concern is less who killed who and why than the nature and consequences of the kind of fanaticism that has shaped Irish politics and, during the past 15 years, fueled the sectarian violence that has so divided and destroyed life in much of Northern Ireland. The novel opens with a prologue describing a raid in 1971 by Protestant military forces on a Roman Catholic neighborhood in Belfast, and the unjustified arrest and torture of Patrick Geer, a television executive working in London but visiting his mother at the time of the raid. The main action of the novel takes place 14 years later, in 1985, and turns on Geer's long-nourished desire for revenge. With the assistance of some extremists in the Irish Republican Army, Geer has concocted an elaborate plot for the assassination of Ian Paisley, the most fanatical and reactionary of the political figures opposed to Catholic rights in Ulster.
McGarr is caught up in the plot when someone indirectly a part of it is murdered. But this is not, principally, McGarr's book. Gill's subject is political fanaticism, and he conveys it with all the force of literary art through the parallel that he draws between Geer's irrational, if justifiable, longing for personal revenge and the IRA's equally irrational belief in violence. As McGarr, relying on the rationality crucial to his profession (thus the title), tries to unravel and then deflect the assassination plot, Gill takes his readers into the minds and hearts of those committed to the principle that, as the Irish patriot Padraic Pearse once said, ``bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing.''
``McGarr and the Method of Descartes'' also reminds us that this kind of political zeal is by no means confined to the oppressed slums of Catholic Belfast. The plot to kill Paisley depends as much on the cooperation of officials high up in the Irish government -- men who, at heart, share the IRA's uncompromising political philosophy -- as on the commitment of militant nationalists scattered throughout the Catholic ghettos of cities like Belfast and Londonderry.
Although ``McGarr and the Method of Descartes'' has its fair share of flaws -- annoying stylistic tics found in Gill's earlier novels and a frequently inaccurate ear for the subtleties of Irish speech -- it does bring the reader terrifyingly close to the unhappy realities of life in contemporary Northern Ireland. And it leaves us with the question that is, alas, as difficult to answer as it was when W. B. Yeats first asked it in response to the bloodshed and violence of the Easter Rising of 1916: ``O when may it suffice?''
Gregory A. Schirmer teaches at the University of Mississippi.