The murdered prostitute and an obsessive wife
Thriller: Lying in Wait, Liz Nugent, Penguin Irleand, pbk, 320 pages, €17.99
Liz Nugent, the newly crowned queen of Irish crime fiction, takes the reader on a white-knuckle ride in her new novel.
Liz Nugent's time as a writer for RTÉ soap Fair City must surely have fared her well in her new life as a crime writer. Lying in Wait, her second novel, displays not just an excellence at sculpting, managing and voicing her cast of characters, but it also makes great use of the kinds of curtain-twitching coincidences and path-crossings that only a tiny city like Dublin can credibly get away with. In Nugent's Dublin, a decidedly "unfair city", monsters and their prey will meet sooner or later.
And what monsters she creates. Her award-winning 2014 debut Unravelling Oliver, charted the anatomy of a psychopath via a chilling gestalt. She spins a similarly dread-inducing web here in another eerily recognisable Dublin, only this time, the horror is taken to the leafy 1980s suburbs of the South County. Here sits a large Georgian mansion that by the time of this tale's truly unforgettable denouement, feels like a predator in itself. Its name is Avalon, and as the name suggests, it is somewhat cut off from the world around it.
Justice George Fitzsimons, his wife Lydia and their son Laurence live here. Their affluent lifestyle has been severely curtailed after a close family friend and accountant vanished with their savings. There's also the small matter of the judge and his wife killing an inner-city drug addict called Annie Doyle and burying her in a flowerbed in view of the kitchen window. A mysterious contract had been agreed between the couple and Annie, and when she refused to play ball, rage and tension resulted in her murder.
Laurence, obese and incessantly bullied at his more affordable new school, is initially unaware of the slaying but notices some particularly strange behaviour by his parents. Shortly afterwards, when George dies of a heart attack, Laurence is adamant to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. Why was his father obsessed with news stories about a missing prostitute before he died, and why had the gardaí appeared at the door one day? It would be nice to say that he carries out an amateur investigation and brings justice to the dead girl and her working-class family but Nugent's is no fairytale world.
Instead, what plays out before us is a wonder of the novelistic dark arts, a three-way circling of the evil via first-person chapter-by-chapter accounts from Laurence, Annie's determined sister Karen, and Lydia. The multiple-narrative structure is nothing new but inside Nugent's nightmare they toy with perceptions and perceived motivations excruciatingly well.
The great coup here is unquestionably Lydia, the manipulative and obsessive mother who drips tiny clues to the blackness of her dysfunction from the very opening lines, almost in passing; the childhood death of a twin sister; the unmannered lack of sympathy for Annie's parents; the creepy way she keeps referring to "daddy".
That her pathology is constructed so cleanly and logically by Nugent only makes it all the more shocking. Her wants are simple to the point of primitive, and the idea that a mother's love is the purest there is will be of little comfort. Get ready to tremble at one of the greatest villains in contemporary thrillerdom.
Laurence is another gem of characterisation by Nugent's hand, his smothered existence and juvenile weight issues playing beautifully towards his increasing obsession with the fate of Annie and the efforts of Karen after the case has gone cold. Karen represents "the other Dublin", hard-working, humble and oppressed, either by her fiercely jealous husband Dessie or her ultra-Catholic mother (this tale's other dangerously zealous matriarch).
There are themes to be considered all along the path. There is Ireland's two-tiered justice system, starkly different for the privileged classes than it is for the proletariat. The changing place of women in Irish society is exemplified by Karen's emerging modelling career and Laurence's brassy ex-girlfriend, Helen (the source of some very choice and immaculately placed humour). A special kind of snobbery exists in this land, we're reminded, without the need of establishment schools or a political peer system.
The great overriding feeling, however, is that Nugent is commenting on the dangers of isolation. Although set during a time when a thing like the internet would have been the stuff of make-believe, it grimly ponders the erosion of compassion when the wider world is scorned in favour of a controlled, contained existence without face-to-face socialisation, much like today's screen-obsessed generation. The home-schooled Lydia is too good to step foot in a society that she deems beneath her. Avalon is her fortress, and the man on the street can burn as far as she is concerned, precisely because she has never met him. "I like to think I did the girl a kindness," she says of Annie at one point, "like putting an injured bird out of its misery. She did not deserve such consideration."
It is remarkable for a thriller to toggle between freezing the blood and sweating the brow without the use of blades, bullets or bloodletting. This is as physical an experience as reading can elicit, where Nugent's steady-handed tightening of the ratchet is designed to be soundtracked by recoiling gasps and sighs of disbelief.
The weaponry is of the mind and the mouth as these three characters collide in a way that you simply won't see coming.
Nugent has said in the past that she doesn't do "rollercoasters" in her professional life, preferring to play things safe when she can. It is an interesting metaphor for this new queen of Irish crime fiction to use.
Speed and swerves are all very well, but it is often the halls of mirrors or haunted houses, those attractions that require you to step into them of your own volition, that can be the real white-knuckle rides of any fairground. Avalon is such a place.