Tuesday 20 March 2018

Baby love and murder: A first novel from RTÉ correspondent Sinéad Crowley

Can Anybody Help Me? Sinéad Crowley Quercus, tpbk, £12.99, 353 pages, Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Sinead Crowley. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Sinead Crowley. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Can Anybody Help Me? by Sinead Crowley
Rachael English
John Kelly
Kathleen MacMahon

Majella O'Reilly

These days, if you want to write a novel, it's best not to waste money signing up to a creative writing masters in the University Of East Anglia or an MPhil at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Getting a job in RTÉ seems like a far surer bet.

The state broadcaster seems to be pumping out as many bestselling authors as any of the prestigious writing universities.

First came newsroom sub-editor Kathleen MacMahon, who hit it big in 2012 when she sold her debut novel This Is How It Ends for a whopping €684,000 as part of a two-book deal at the London Book Fair. Then RTÉ's Morning Ireland presenter Rachael English showed she could turn her hand to more than just news and current affairs with her debut novel, Going Back, which came out last year.

And there are many more, like John Kelly, presenter of The Works, whose latest novel has just appeared. Anne Marie Casey, a former scriptwriter on The Clinic, and Liz Nugent, who worked on the Fair City team, are two other RTÉ novelists. And let's not forget Anne Enright, who worked in RTÉ before becoming a Booker Prize-winning novelist.

There must be something in the water out in Montrose. And clearly RTÉ's Arts and Media Correspondent Sinéad Crowley has been drinking it because now she has added her name to the list with her debut thriller, Can Anybody Help Me?, which is out now from a major British publisher.

Crowley found the inspiration for her novel while she was on maternity leave with her first son. And it shows in the plot, which centres around 'NetMammy', a fictionalised version of the numerous forums that real-life mothers engage with to share advice and argue about whether or not bottle-feeding is the devil's work.

Can Anybody Help Me? is a solid start for a crime writer and introduces a particularly fascinating new detective character in Detective Sergeant Claire Boyle. Crowley instantly makes her more interesting by making her five months pregnant as the book opens. A detective sergeant with heartburn and threatened pre-eclampsia is a new one on me. Crowley makes her likeable too in her pragmatic disregard for the sentimental side of life (she gets testy when her husband tears up at their 20 -week pregnancy scan) and is constantly having to apologise for getting home late from work or shelving their romantic plans to go back to work.

As well as Claire, who comes with a decent back story of heartbreak, as any good detective character must, the story centres around the murder of a young woman called Miriam, who was a user on NetMammy. Yvonne, an English woman who has just moved to Ireland with her husband, a producer on the television programme Teevan Tonight, becomes concerned when she notices Miriam's absence on the forum, and again when she sees the news story about her death a few days later.

The story spins out from there and leads us through a few blind alleys and offers up a few red herrings (some of them a little too fishy) along the way, before closing the deal nearly 400 pages later with a twist that is not quite as shocking as I would have liked it to be. But that doesn't take away from the enjoyment of this novel and it flies along at an absorbing pace.

Crowley does a good job of emulating the internet forum and offers some humourous interludes from the user comments and the debates about whether to slap your child or not, whether to breastfeed, whether to keep your son in our out of the marital bed, and all of the abbreviations that go along with these online conversations (DH = Darling Husband; DS = Darling Son; LO = Little One; ECS = Emergency Caesarean-Section; and so on ... )

The most scary thing for this reader was the overwhelming, almost suffocating wall of support that comes back from the mothers posting on this fictional forum. It's almost cult-like and I'm sure any mother who has gone on to one of these sites looking for help will think twice about revealing details of their lives after reading this book.

Crowley's writing is clean and solid and she also has a great eye for observation and runs a nice line in sarcastic comments that lean towards the Chandleresque at times.

She also manages to work the property bust into the novel, with ghost estates and desperate landlords in negative equity. And we get a look at the inside of a television station's workings as well, since Yvonne's husband, Gerry, is a producer on the Teevan Tonight show. It's hard not to play a guessing game as to who the cocky television presenter Eamon Teevan might be inspired by . . .

Crowley makes you realise how much blind trust most of us are placing in our online dealings with complete strangers in this Twitter age and that leaves a chilling feeling as this book ends. It's not quite as terrifying as I had hoped and it's not as complicated as it needs to be to make it a bit more of a challenge for the reader, but as first novels go, this is a really promising beginning that sits well inside the new highly commercial genre of female crime started by Gillian Flynn and her novel Gone Girl. And you can certainly see this one on the big screen.

I certainly want to see Detective Sergeant Claire Boyle again, and to see how she fares in the all-consuming work world of the police with a baby in tow.

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