April 2024

Four Shots in the Night

By Henry Hemming
Review by
With the skill of a suspense novelist, Henry Hemming artfully unspools an enthralling investigation into espionage during Northern Ireland’s “troubles.”
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The epitome of success for an intelligence agency is to place an informer within the highest echelons of the enemy’s organization. But what if that mole is then asked to do something that endangers lives? Does the agency sacrifice the spy and jeopardize their mission, or allow someone on their own side to die?

In the murky world of secret agents and their handlers, this ugly quandary known as “the spymaster’s dilemma” is at the heart of British author Henry Hemming’s enthralling Four Shots in the Night: A True Story of Spies, Murder, and Justice in Northern Ireland, an account of the real-life intelligence war between British authorities and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during Northern Ireland’s “troubles.” The 1968–1998 conflict led to the deaths of more than 3,500 people and created an atmosphere of constant fear and heartbreak.

Hemming follows an array of participants, but his focus is on three men: Frank Hegarty, Freddie Scappaticci and Martin McGuinness. Hegarty and Scappaticci were working-class Catholics with IRA connections who were recruited as informers by the British; McGuinness was a top IRA leader who ultimately morphed into a successful politician. Hegarty was killed by the IRA in 1986, and his murder led to what Hemming calls “kaleidoscopic fallout” in Britain that has lasted well into this century.

Hemming artfully unspools this complex tale with the skill of a suspense novelist, from Hegarty’s recruitment in 1980 by a fellow greyhound enthusiast, through the 2016 police investigation meant to bring closure to the case. Hemming’s greatest strength is his ability to take the reader inside the spies’ tradecraft: We learn how informants are persuaded (or coerced) into cooperation, how they meet with their handlers and exactly how they die when they’re betrayed. And like iconic espionage novelist John le Carré, Hemming shows us how internal bureaucratic rivalries can have lethal consequences.

Was Scappaticci the infamous British agent “Stakeknife” who was on the IRA’s hit squad? Was McGuinness a British asset? Who ordered Hegarty’s execution, and who did the deed? The main players are all dead now, and we’ll never know for sure. But Hemming allows us some informed guesses and forces us to face the inevitable moral tradeoffs of our shadow wars.

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Four Shots in the Night

Four Shots in the Night

By Henry Hemming
ISBN 9781541703186

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