WITH OUR BLESSING by JO SPAIN : a review

WITH OUR BLESSING

JO SPAIN

QUERCUS 540 pp €17.99

It’s December 2011 and the body of an elderly woman is found crucified and mutilated in the Phoenix Park just a short distance from Garda Headquarters. When it emerges that the victim was a nun, Inspector Tom Reynolds realises that this is far different to the usual gangland killings with which his squad have to deal. The killer was making a point but what point?

The dead woman was Mother Superior in a rural convent outside Limerick, a convent that once housed one of the notorious Magdalen Laundries. Tom Reynolds and his team descend on the convent and begin to sift through a painful chapter of Ireland’s not too distant past. Could there be a connection, with someone from the past returning to wreak revenge? Or is the answer to be found in the personality of the nun herself, clearly disliked if not hated by her fellow religious and many of the villagers?

The convent is home to about twenty nuns, some of whom at least appear potential suspects. When inspected, its archives reveal a catalogue of ill treatment of the unfortunate girls and young women consigned there over decades, something confirmed by several of the nuns. Tom Reynolds rapidly becomes convinced that the clue to the murder lies within these past events, which have included illegal adoptions and mysterious pregnancies by women locked up for several years. Is the killer a wronged mother, deprived of her child at birth, or one of the adopted children? And what role does and did the local parish priest, the only ally of the murdered nun, play in all of this?

This latest addition to Irish detective fiction is the debut novel of Jo Spain and was one of those shortlisted in this year’s Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition. For the author, the story has a very personal dimension. As she notes, her father was adopted out of out of an Irish mother and baby home and the book which “visits the sad history of such institutions” is written in his memory. The novel’s backdrop was based on some of MS Spain’s in-depth research to trace her family’s roots.

The Magdalen Laundries and the treatment of single mothers thirty years ago are a stain on Ireland’s recent history, something many survivors – and society – are still coming to terms with. Jo Spain’s novel attempts to bring to life in fictional terms what happened to some of the victims while making clear that there are many files to be read and many stories still to be told. As might be expected there were good nuns who deplored what was happening and who tried to help but the system was there and Irish society of the time was content to allow it. How times have changed, and the author cleverly contrasts the treatment meted out thirty or more years ago with the attitudinal change today when a detective’s daughter reveals she is pregnant.

“With our Blessing” is an easy, though not a comfortable, read.

30/08

Advertisements

THE GAME CHANGER by LOUISE PHILLIPS : a review

THE GAME CHANGER

LOUISE PHILLIPS

HATCHETTE BOOKS 422pp €17.99

Kate Pearson is back in Louise Phillips’ fourth book featuring the Irish criminal psychologist.

But it’s a different Kate Pearson in what is arguably the author’s most ambitious novel yet. The Pearson stories are set in real time and events have moved on since “Last Kiss.” Kate has finally split up with her husband, though relations appear fairly amicable over access to Charlie, their son. She is now living with her collaborator in earlier books, Detective Inspector Adam O Connor. She has scaled down her work and is enjoying life.

But not for long. When Adam is called out in the middle of the night to cover the apparent suicide of the Chief Superintendent’s brother-in-law it sets off a chain of events in which Kate becomes not only professional adviser but one of those intimately involved. The dead man, O’Neill, was an acquaintance of her late father and his death is suspiciously like that of his foster child, a friend of Kate’s who had died when she was twelve. O’Neill withdrew large sums of money before his death, raising the possibility of blackmail. Curiously, also, some of his DNA had been found at the murder scene in New York of an Irish emigrant known to Kate’s father.

Then an anonymous note is pushed under Kate’s front door:“ I remember you, Kate.” It stirs up memories, some latent, some forgotten. For Kate has a childhood secret. Aged twelve she had been abducted and had blotted out the memory of subsequent events. She learns that her parents had lied to her about her missing episode and wonders what else they lied about. Were there events in the past in some way linking her father with the two recent deaths? When more notes arrive Kate realises she is being stalked. Adam can promise protection but is it enough? And what happened when Kate was abducted?

Enter the Game Changer and a complicated parallel story. People are disappearing , vulnerable women for the most part, having, like O’Neill, manifested signs of depression and also having withdrawn large amounts of money before vanishing. All had reportedly been attending self-help and “enlightenment” courses. Kate, consulted, and amidst her own troubles and fears, suspects a cult, with all its sinister connotations. But who heads up the cult and could there be some connection with whoever is stalking Kate?

To reveal more would be to spoil what is another enjoyable Louise Phillips’ novel. The pace fairly zips along with over one hundred short chapters and frequent switches in points of view helping to stoke and maintain the tension. Kate and Adam are plausible and well-drawn characters, with complex personalities and a relationship to match, not always an idyllic one . The dialogue throughout is handled excellently.

If there is a criticism it is that the parallel story has sufficient depth and appeal to have constituted a novel in its own right . Several of the “disappeared” are sketched expertly and sympathetically, highlighting why they would be vulnerable to a plausible con operation like a cult. There’s also a surprising parallel minor hero who helps link the two narratives at a level other than that of police investigation. Finally, the author’s capacity for descriptive prose is given full expression, in particular in two scenes, one an account of a very distressed woman, the other a chapter in which a six year old describes the world she sees around her. This last piece was also that chosen by the author to read at the formal book launch. Unsurprisingly.

11/09

SNAPSHOTS by MICHAEL O’ HIGGINS : a review

SNAPSHOTS

MICHAEL O’ HIGGGINS

NEW ISLAND BOOKS 313 pp €14.99

Michael O’Higgins is a man of considerable talents. He started out as a journalist for Magill and Hot Press, writing on Crime and Northern Ireland. He published a lengthy profile of the Irish criminal Martin Cahill ( “The General”), based on extensive interviews. Called to the Bar in 1988, he became a Senior Counsel in 2000 and is now one of Ireland’s top barristers. In recent years he has appeared as defence counsel for John Gilligan, Michael McKevitt in connection with the Omagh bombing and former Chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, Sean Fitzpatrick. He was also lead counsel in the prosecution and conviction of Limerick gangster Wayne Dundon.

One of his hobbies is writing and he has twice won the Hennessy OXO Literary Awards in 2008 and 2010 for his short stories “The Great Escape” and “The Migration.” He has now produced his first book, Snapshots, distilling in it elements from his lengthy experience as a criminal lawyer.

It is Dublin in the early 1980s, a different world. It is the Ireland of the IRA Hunger Strikes and the public debate over abortion and whether Kerry might win five in a row. It is also one where for the first time Ireland is encountering a serious drugs problem and the rise of organised crime. There is the added worry that the Provos, their support massively boosted by the Hunger Strikes, are becoming active in Dublin working class areas, even cooperating with the local criminal gangs. The top brass in the Gardai are worried.

The most prominent gangster is Christy Clarke from the North Inner City, a murderer who escaped prosecution on a technicality and who is notorious for his ruthless attitude, meticulous preparation and planning which has so far enabled him to evade justice . At home he’s a wife –beater and a boozer with his soft side reserved for his racing pigeons. In dogged pursuit of Clarke is Detective Sergeant Dick Roche, frustrated at Clarke’s ability to evade justice and determined to be there when Clarke finally slips up.

Clarke’s twelve year old son Wayne has a talent for music and is taken under the wing of the local curate, Fr. Brendan. Fr. Brendan appears clean cut and above reproach and is chosen to be part of the team leading the anti-abortion campaign. In fact Brendan is anything but and is leading a double life, with potentially explosive consequences if revealed. Yet it is in the course of his normal pastoral duties that he unwittingly fingers a prison officer for retaliation by the IRA, acting through Christy Clarke. The brutal attack which follows triggers events involving all four principals.

The book is a page turner and has everything one might expect given the author : allegations of Garda brutality, tip-offs from informers, intimidation of witnesses, cross questioning of suspects and courtroom drama (and comedy) in abundance, all described in terms that ring of authenticity. The courtroom scenes involving a clever and resourceful defendant are particularly realistic. The difficulties of actually nailing a major criminal are pointed up even if, as the author notes, ” a judge handing down sentence to a man with an endless stream of road traffic convictions wasn’t long reading between the lines.” The denouement is both dramatic and unexpected.

Perhaps the ultimate accolade for authenticity is the description by the CIA of a book about its activities as “ a novel but not fiction.” This gritty thriller about the Dublin crime scene in the 1980s is in this mould.

19/09