Author Peter Quinn mixes history with mystery in latest novel


The author Peter Quinn, whose third and final installment of the Detective Fintan Dunne trilogy was released in October, talks to Tom Deignan.

It’s been nearly 20 years since Peter Quinn’s epic "Banished Children of Eve," arguably the greatest novel of the New York Irish, was published. Over the course of 600 pages, Quinn depicts the city in all its gore and glory, as the Irish and others struggle to find a place in America, which had absorbed wave after wave of Famine immigrants, only to then be plunged into a bloody Civil War. With extraordinary attention to detail and a diverse cast of characters, Quinn presents the causes and consequences of these seismic events, including the Draft Riots of 1863, and raises important questions about the Irish, immigration, assimilation and the myth of the melting pot.

“Once the Irish stepped off those boats, they were different people. Because now they had to deal with all these other people,” Quinn said recently, seated in the back room of the Old Town bar on East 18th Street in Manhattan.

Now 66, Quinn was alternately comic and reflective, irreverent and earnest, over the course of a wide-ranging interview that covered his writing career, the Irish in America, as well as his latest book, "Dry Bones," the third and final installment in his celebrated Fintan Dunne trilogy.

Though set decades after the Civil War, the Dunne trilogy – "Hour of the Cat," "The Man Who Never Returned," and "Dry Bones" – all raise similarly dramatic questions about the Irish in America, and the triumphs and tragedies of life in the big city.

As Quinn himself wrote in his 2005 collection of essays "Looking for Jimmy," it is important that we remember how “an immigrant group already under punishing cultural and economic pressures, reeling in the wake of the worst catastrophe in Western Europe in the 19th century, and plunged into the fastest industrializing society in the world . . . built its own far-flung network of charitable and educational institutions, preserved its own identity, and had a profound influence on the future of both the country it left and the one it came to.”

Done with Dunne

One of Eve’s millions of banished children was a World War I veteran and ex-cop turned private investigator named Fintan Dunne.

“To me, Dunne is a quintessential Irish New York character – an ex cop, cynical, but not without certain ideals – who thinks everyone is full of shit until proven otherwise. Which is an attitude I’m in love with,” says Quinn, his laughter rising above the crowd noise of the Old Town, a fitting interview location, given its own links to New York’s storied past. Over a century old, with its gleaming mahogany bar, 19th-century bathroom fixtures and Tammany Hall campaign posters, the Old Town is a joint Fintan Dunne himself might have frequented.

“This might be a reflection of my Bronx Irish upbringing,” adds Quinn. “But [the idea] for every one of my novels started with a conversation at a bar.”

In "Dry Bones," Dunne is recruited to the Office of Strategic Services – the forerunner to the CIA – by pal and Irish American legend Col. William “Wild Bill” Donovan. It is 1945 and World War II is finally drawing to a close.

Dunne and his colleagues must go behind enemy lines to rescue a team of fellow OSS officers. The mission leads Dunne to numerous revelations, the consequences of which reverberate for a decade afterwards. In "Dry Bones," we see Dunne not only on the front lines, but also thrust into the prosperous 1950s, where our cantankerous hero has trouble fitting in.

"Dry Bones" follows "The Man Who Never Returned," in which Dunne attempted to solve the notorious real-life case of Judge Joseph Crater, who vanished from West 45th Street in August of 1930, never to be heard from again.

The first entrance in Quinn’s Dunne trilogy was "Hour of the Cat," set on the eve of World War II, when Dunne finds himself ensnared in a Nazi scheme involving players on both sides of the Atlantic.

The History-Mystery

Asked if Fintan Dunne is a relative of Jimmy Dunne, the streetwise Irish hustler from "Banished Children of Eve," Quinn says: “Fintan Dunne is a relative of Jimmy’s, but I don’t know how . . . the relationship between Jimmy and Fintan is real, but its exact nature is swallowed up in the realities and complexities of famine Irish descendants in New York City.”

All in all, the three novels in the Fintan Dunne trilogy – aside from being excellent page-turning mysteries – are also brilliant social histories of New York in the middle of the American Century. Best-selling author James Patterson has praised Quinn for “perfecting . . . a genre you could call the history-mystery,” while Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy has dubbed the Dunne books “noir fiction at its finest.”