Adrian McKinty is fast gaining a reputation as the finest of the new generation of Irish crime writers, and it's easy to see why on the evidence of this novel, the first in a projected trilogy of police procedurals.

Set in Carrickfergus, just outside Belfast, in 1981, the book is mired deep in the worst period of history for the Troubles, with the action taking place against a backdrop of hunger strikes, nightly riots, protection rackets and drug running by paramilitary organisations on both sides of the divide, and much more besides.

Into this cesspit comes Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, a young, bright copper who just happens to be a Catholic in a profession almost entirely populated by Protestants. Duffy is wisecracking and hard-drinking but he's sharp too – he knows about classical music and the Greek myths, both of which come in handy on the two cases he's working on.

Initially, both cases seem to be that most unusual of things – crimes in Northern Ireland not connected to sectarianism. Duffy has to investigate what seems to be a homophobic serial killer (homosexuality in this era was still illegal in the country). At the same time he has to look into the missing wife of a hunger striker, although the reasons for her disappearance seem to be more personal than political.

All this is handled brilliantly by McKinty. The ace in the author's hand is the setting, one that he knows from his childhood. The levels of corruption, violence, misogyny, homophobia and chaos are extraordinary yet completely believable, and at times it's a jolt to remember that this was only 30 years ago in a country that's a short ferry ride away.

At times The Cold Cold Ground has the feel of James Ellroy, the prose is that focused and intense, but then there are moments of darkest humour, with just a hint of the retro feel of Life On Mars thrown in.

The complex plotting and acidic dialogue here are the equal of any crime writer around, and the story rattles along at a breakneck pace, but there is also an earthy eloquence to McKinty's prose that raises it above the level of the average police procedural. For all that, there are one or two slightly duff notes towards the end of the book, and the ending feels a tad anticlimactic after all that's gone before. But McKinty sets up the second book of the trilogy superbly, and I for one will be picking it up when it arrives.

Troubles and strife