The Manchester Martyrs were three members of a large gang who attacked a horse-drawn police van on Hyde Road in September 1867. Two leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were sprung free and a police guard shot dead with a bullet allegedly intended to smash the lock. The trio were hanged before huge crowds on the steps of New Bailey Prison two months afterwards with the city reduced to a standstill.

That year’s Fenian Rising had ended in failure – largely on account of the network of spies the British had been running within their ranks.

So much is history. Ian McGuire’s new novel spins an aftermath in which police chief James O’Connor gets wind of a plot to kill the Mayor in a revenge attack, prompting a cat and mouse chase in which the teetotal copper, himself of Irish blood, vies to intercept the intended assassin.

That man is Stephen Doyle, veteran of the American Civil War and cleanskin recruit from New York’s burgeoning Fenian Brotherhood. Unknown to Doyle his passage to Liverpool has been picked up by a fellow shipmate, however – O’Connor’s nephew Michael Sullivan, whom the policeman promptly enlists to infiltrate the plotters. When Sullivan and other moles are unmasked and slain in cold blood, O’Connors loyalty, temperance and celibacy are thrown into doubt, sparking a quest for redemption which takes him all the way to rural Pennsylvania on the trail of his nemesis.

McGuire is a Rolls Royce of a writer at least in prospect (though as prospects go an author in his mid-fifties on only his third novel will be wanting to get his skates on, career-wise). A senior lecturer at the Centre For New Writing – the less publicly boisterous of Manchester’s two university writing schools – his last outing, 2016’s The North Water, picked up a Booker Prize long-listing and will soon be making a splash on our TV screens courtesy of director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) and prime time harpoon-flingers Colin Farrell and Jack O’Connell. A brutal period whaling drama channeling Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy, it’s one of those brilliance-by-numbers novels which seem nevertheless to point up the paradoxes in teaming painterly prose with tight, plot-led storytelling: dazzling in skill, dashing in adventure, quiet in resonance and deft in delivering its hand, it read like a bespoke film treatment by an under-challenged prodigy.

The new one is cut from similar cloth: a terse two-hander on an historical theme played out in the backstreets of Victorian Manchester, dispensed in pin-sharp televisual instalments. Cop O’Connor, nursing the demons of his past – the dead wife, the submersed drink problem, the small morgue-full of expended informants – is a near-identikit tortured ‘tec brought to life in cut-glass sentences. Hitman Doyle – the orphaned farmhand turned grunt made proud with the morals of the barnyard – an authorial lure just waiting for the lawman to fall into his own shadow.

Meanwhile a small opera supporting cast – Rose the cringing widow, Riley the safehouse inn-keeper, Rice the querulous tannery boss – flesh out an agreeably genuine period piece without ever subverting expectation or breaking stride.

It’s a striking blend: the Granadaland yarn, the fine-spun prose. Everything clips along on the front foot without a pennyweight of fat, each sentence pushing forward the action in an impatient present tense made redolent with similarising detail.

Dispatched at the gallows the martyrs leave “only three taut lines of rope like long scratches on the prison wall”. Felled by an assailant, O’Connor’s “cheek and forehead, unprotected, slap down onto the wet pavement like a side of beef slipped from a butcher’s hook.” As Doyle departs a late night encounter the “wet fog, rough-grained and maculate as old timber, breaks open to receive him, then shuts behind like a door.”

Is this where the writing schools would take us with literary fiction? Is there a reaction to the stasis and navel-gazing of its twentieth century forebear to be found in work such as this or Adam O’Riordan’s LA story collection The Burning Ground –luxuriantly-visualised modern counterparts to dime store fictions and Victorian serials, alchemized into artfulness by academics with writing smarts and Ph.Ds in American realism?

If he could churn out these boutique thrillers at a lick they could acquire great public affection – in advance of their inevitable screen adaptations, of course.

“As the cab drives away, a cat shrieks in the bushes nearby, and the churchyard clock, like a slow-witted child, slowly counts its way up to ten…”

TV drama as high literature…why not?