Literature from Northern Ireland: By Jaysus you had some eshcape: Mike Petty takes a course in Troubles thrillers and finds much terrible beauty

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I'VE NEVER been to Northern Ireland, so I'm prepared to believe almost anything of the place, except that it's the haven of peace described by one I Paisley Snr (in some way related, I dare say) in the latest edition of Expression, the American Express magazine. A 'fabulous place to holiday and relax', he says, 'a country bursting with festivals and tradition, fishing, sailing, golf courses, superb architecture and fine cuisine'. Although I'm somewhat reminded of the Mayor in Jaws trying to get everyone back on the beach, it's clearly not Mr Paisley Jnr's fault if my prevailing impression is of a country bursting with psychopaths and demagogues, hand-wringing priests and weeping women. That's what a course of Troubles thrillers will do for you.

The line of the Troubles thriller goes back through F L Green's wartime Odd Man Out to Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer (1925), both now better remembered as films by Carol Reed and John Ford respectively. The current leader of the pack is probably Gerald Seymour, author of Harry's Game, Field of Blood and The Journeyman Tailor (Fontana, pounds 4.99), by which Douglas Hurd was 'not only gripped, but unexpectedly moved'. It's curious that Graham Greene never seems to have been tempted by the subject, but the novels of M S Power (the Children of the North trilogy, Come the Executioner), with their seductive mixture of spry humour and instinctive, almost subliminal sympathy for human frailty, fill that particular gap more than adequately.

A recent article in the Guardian spoke disparagingly of 'Weekend Troubles Writers', who fly into Belfast for a few days, go home and get everything wrong. You couldn't accuse the present bunch of that; they've done their time. Peter Cunningham, author of Who Trespass Against Us (Century, pounds 14.99) is a former Dublin accountant and commodity trader (fittingly, his book is mostly set in the Republic). The General (Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 14.99) is by Patrick Coogan, whose Belfast background includes both Loyalists and Republicans, and his family has suffered at the hands of both (he rose to the rank of Major in the British Army into the bargain). And Richard Crawford, author of Fall When Hit (Heinemann, pounds 15.99) is the son of an RUC detective, and is a civil servant in Belfast. So all three have a certain sort of authenticity in common, if not much else - certainly no golf or fine cuisine, although an artery-buster called an Ulster fry crops up regularly.

Who Trespass Against Us clocks up a high score on the TBI, or Terrible Beauty Index, which is a measurement of the readiness of characters to invoke either Yeats or the Lost Kings of Erin at moments of stress. The daughter of Adam Coleraine, a highly placed British civil servant, is killed by an IRA bomb. It so happens that he has had sight of a secret Irish government report which gives him a clue to the identity of the bomber, so, maddened with grief, he steals the report and travels to a Belfast monastery, having first taken the precaution of becoming a monk at a seminary in Rome. Fearful of the catastrophe which would ensue if Coleraine fell into the wrong hands, HMG appeals to the Irish for help, and the report's author is dispatched for a bit of the old cat-and-mouse and if-you're- caught-we-deny-everything. Pausing only to down a 'sweet half moon of creamy bitterness' (that's Guinness to you) and to bed the Minister of Justice, who is beautiful with her glasses off ('At last we spun an exhausted tenderness that was as pure and ephemeral as the slow first light creeping over winter Connemara'), Brian sets off in hot pursuit of Adam, who before the climactic shootout (there is always one of those) achieves a climax of a different sort with an IRA Angel of Death called Nona. The tension is somewhat undermined by Cunningham's tendency to blather on, and his ingenious attempts to render accents both Southern ('By Jaysus you had some eshcape, dough . . . Lie shtil, lie shtil . . . You're on a dthrip . . .') and Northern ('Atrayshus . . . Make ye wanta crey . . . the creadil to the greeiv . . .') are wildly distracting.

The General would have scored a low TBI but for a spectacular late burst on the rails from Gerry Madden, PIRA leader, as he decides to go for broke: 'I will rekindle the flames of Yeats's Terrible Beauty . . . I will drive the cause to utter destruction or total victory.' In fact Madden is being manipulated to utter destruction by another Angel of Death called Siobhan, who with a cunning cocktail of psychological warfare, heroin and oral sex has got him to the point where he doesn't know his Ardoyne from his Enniskillen ('Siobhan, my love, it's time for bed. Come and wrap yourself around me. I have a lot to think of'), and she can take over. Her fiendish plan has been spotted, however, by The General, another Angel of Death, but this time one of ours.

Charlotte Aitken was born to command, and determined to be the British army's first female General. This she achieves by eliminating the PIRA with the aid of unlimited firepower and plenty of female intuition. The political will is supplied by the Prime Minister, fighting for his political life after Madden's go-for-broke campaign has almost polished off Prince Charles, gunned down dozens of unarmed coppers on the streets of the mainland, assassinated the Chief of the General Staff, shot down the RAF's last Lancaster bomber, and - the ultimate outrage - blown away the Editor of the Sun. (Hard to suppress a guilty little spasm of glee at this point.)

Like any other brass hat, of course, Charlotte has inner needs - she's all woman, in fact, embarking on a career-threatening affair with an NCO and being serviced in ways undreamt of by Queen's Regulations ('Never seen a naked lady before, Colour-Sar'nt?' 'You're a hell of a woman, Major.'). All ends happily, with the PIRA neutralised, the Colour-Sar'nt promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and no longer a social embarrassment, and the General giving birth to twins. A very peculiar book, this, but definitely one for anyone who's ever wondered why the Government doesn't do something about Northern Ireland.

Fall When Hit has a TBI of zero - there's no time. Nor is there time for side-trips to see the PM, late-night whisky sessions between Five and Six, meanwhile-in-Libya, or all the usual folderol. This is one damn thing after another, in which Garrett Kearns, a part-time UDR captain, has a car crash, shoots an undercover man, and finds himself up to his neck in something nastily Kafkaesque. It's all because of a cock-up, of course, in which a young civil servant got to hear a tape she shouldn't have heard. (If there's one thing that characterises most Troubles thrillers, it's a bottomless cynicism about the competence and motives of HMG.) The mayhem is appalling, the hero apparently indestructible, his sleazy MI5 nemesis satisfyingly horrible, the writing lean and mean. This is a thriller that actually thrills.