On 20th December 2004, a gang of robbers ripped off the Donegal Square West Headquarters of Northern Bank in Belfast, netting approximately £26.5 million in Sterling and other currencies. This was the largest bank robbery in Irish history. While a small amount of the money has been recovered, and one person convicted of money laundering offences, the vast majority of the cash has never been found. Neither have the perpetrators been identified, though the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) believe it to have been committed by the IRA. Richard O’Rawe’s new novel, Northern Heist, is inspired by this robbery. Reading it, I was reminded of another novel, which coincidentally was published in 2004, the year of the Northern Bank heist.

Judas Pig was published by the now defunct publishers The Do-Not Press and was penned by a man writing under the pseudonym Horace Silver (taken from the acclaimed jazz artist). It has nothing to do with the 2004 robbery or even Northern Ireland. Instead, Judas Pig is an East End Gangland Roman à Clef. The novel tells the story of Billy Abrahams, gangster and right-hand man to violent psychopath, Billy. Judas Pig has since become something of a cult sensation; a number of leading journalists made no secret of the fact that they knew who the author really was, that his tale was authentic; the author went into hiding fearing repercussions; online members of the reading public, turned amateur detective, tried to guess his identity. After being accused in the pages of the Sunday Times of being a gangland boss, David Hunt, an East End businessman, sued the newspaper for libel. During the trial it emerged that Horace Silver was in fact a man named Jimmy Holmes, and the character Danny, was modelled on Hunt. David Hunt lost his legal action against the Sunday Times and was forced to pay substantial damages.

The reason for recapping this history for this review, is that the buzz surrounding the publication of Northern Heist is very reminiscent to that which surrounded Judas Pig. While Richard O’Rawe is no gangster and there is no suggestion that any of the characters in Northern Heist are based on him or real people, his pedigree does grant the book more than a hint of authenticity. O’Rawe grew up in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, was politicised and joined the IRA. Imprisoned in Long Kesh, he became the press officer for the IRA inmates there. In later years, he’s published three authoritative non-fiction titles on The Troubles, including an acclaimed biography of Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four.

Northern Heist tells the story of James “Ructions” O’Hare, a major criminal and experienced armed robber. Ructions uncle, Panzer, heads up the family firm and Ructions is his right-hand man. This is something Panzer’s son, Finbar, resents. At the beginning of the novel, Ructions is in the final stages of planning a huge robbery, an act which they believe will net them more money than all their previous jobs combined. It’s to be a tiger heist: their gang will kidnap the families of two of The National Bank’s managers, then force the managers to empty the bank’s vault for them, under the threat of doing their families harm. Alongside the logistical challenges of such a robbery, they need to avoid detection from the police, but also the predatory advances of the IRA, who tax criminals and are sure to want a hefty slice of any proceeds.

Like Judas Pig, Northern Heist is an oddly amoral novel. Most crime novels, even those written from the point of view of criminals, attempt to give their protagonists at least a veneer of morality, even if it is somewhat skewed. Northern Heist does no such thing, but rather tells the story of the planning, execution, and aftermath of the heist with almost clinical detachment. With military-esque precision, Ructions puts his plan into action and pulls off the heist. So, the family of the two bank managers are kidnapped and traumatised, Ructions and his men hardly shedding a tear. Without divulging too many spoilers, there is one scene at the end of the book which tries to soften this somewhat, but only goes someway to doing so.

Does this matter? To some extent it does. While Ructions in particular, but other characters also, are well drawn and well imagined, it is difficult to warm to any of them. Quite simply, it’s difficult to cheer for, and be in the corner of, someone willing to traumatise innocent families. I read a lot of crime novels and am no fan of cozy mysteries, rather my particular favourite sub-genre is noir. So, I’m used to reading novels populated by flawed and not particularly nice individuals. The trick for an author is to invest them with just enough qualities that the reader can take to them. A good example of this is James Ellroy’s novel White Jazz, the protagonist of which is a corrupt police officer and slum landlord, a man who performs hits for the mob and is in a sexual relationship with his own sister. Yet somehow, Ellroy manages to make this loathsome individual, if not loveable, at least likeable, and one can’t help but cheer him on. O’Rawe doesn’t do any of that here, and even Ructions, his novel’s main protagonist, is not someone I took to in any way.

That said, Northern Heist is not a normal novel in the same way that Judas Pig wasn’t. Certainly, it’s met with a similar reaction. The Northern Irish newspapers have been full of speculation as to what O’Rawe knows about the real robbery, that of the Northern Bank. His past in the IRA has led many to wonder whether he has inside information, perhaps having been told by people still involved in that life. But if he does, was the robbery perpetrated by a criminal gang as described in the novel, with the IRA having no involvement? Or might O’Rawe’s novel be a cunning ploy to throw those still looking for the money off the scent of the real robbers, i.e. the IRA?

In interviews O’Rawe has dismissed such speculation, asserting that he has no inside information. He states that he has absolutely no idea who committed the infamous Northern Bank robbery, that his novel is pure fiction; yes, it is inspired by a true story, but one that he’s only read about in the newspapers and watched on television.

I have no reason to doubt the author’s integrity, but it’s undoubtedly true that in his past life he met the kind of people – IRA members and criminals – who would commit such an act. And it is this insight which gives the novel its frisson. Arguably, the characters that populate Northern Heist are truer to the real-life criminal underworld than those which populate other crime novels, for who would traumatise innocent families but these people? In the same way the characters that populated Judas Pig were curiously despicable and loathsome, so too are those that stalk the pages of Northern Heist.

Northern Heist is O’Rawe’s first novel and I wonder whether he will write another. If so, will any of the characters of Northern Heist return? I hope so, in the same way I hoped the author of Judas Pig would write a sequel (he did, though Amazon forced its withdrawal after threats of legal action). Just like Judas Pig before it, Northern Heist is a compelling insight into a world most of us will happily never encounter. And just like Judas Pig, despite its unsympathetic and loathsome characters, it’s a strangely compelling and enjoyable read. Perhaps then both Judas Pig and Northern Heist should be judged not like other crime novels, but in a special category all of their own.

James Pierson 4/4

Northern Heist by Richard O’Rawe
Merrion Press 9781785371936 pbk Sep 2018