Friday 23 February 2018

A thrilling double act

Thriller: Girl Unknown, Karen Perry, Penguin/Michael Joseph, pbk, 374 pages, €16.99

Twice as nice: Authors Karen Gillece and Ian Perry co-write under the pseudonym Karen Perry.
Twice as nice: Authors Karen Gillece and Ian Perry co-write under the pseudonym Karen Perry.
Girl Unknown by Karen Perry.

Myles McWeeney on the third offering from a literary partnership that keeps on supplying well-crafted fiction.

David Connolly is a Professor of Modern Irish History in UCD, and, after 17 years in the university, is confident that he will be promoted and take over the running of the department when the current head retires. He and his wife Caroline have two children - 15-year-old Robbie, an A student and talented cello player, and 12-year-old Holly, an introspective and wise-beyond-her-years young girl. Caroline is about to go back to work in event management after a decade and a half of being a stay-at-home mum.

But then Zoe Barry explodes into their lives. A slim, waif-like young woman with radiantly blonde hair tumbling to her shoulders and a slight Northern Ireland accent, Zoe is one of David's first-year students, but he hardly notices her until she asks for a meeting and drops her bombshell. She is from Belfast and is his daughter, she announces.

It is a statement that leaves David reeling, but Zoe knows that he had a relationship in his final year as a PhD student in Queen's University with the woman who she says is her mother.

Suddenly, his family, imperfect and flawed to be sure, but working, will have to find space to accommodate someone new.

As Zoe quickly insinuates herself into the Connolly family's life, it becomes apparent to each of them that her stories don't quite add up, and that lies become indistinguishable from truths.

She is cold and calculating with Caroline, virtually ignores Holly, is warm and friendly with a smitten Robbie and wraps David around her little finger.

The family struggles to make sense of this cuckoo in their nest - is she a sister, daughter, friend or enemy? They have let a girl into their home whom they know nothing about, and must try to come to terms with the turmoil she is creating.

As each member of the family in their own way tries to find out more about Zoe and her motivations, it becomes apparent that her version of the her past is very different from the reality, and tensions begin to rise.

A family holiday without Zoe on the Isle de France seems like a good idea, but when she arrives unexpectedly, the seeds of a family tragedy are rapidly sown.

Girl Unknown is one of the most richly satisfying psychological thrillers of 2016, a book that hooks the reader from the first page. The main characters come with warts-and-all personalities but are sympathetically and believably drawn, and the tension is relentlessly dialled up to an almost unbearable level as the story unfolds.

It sets Karen Perry firmly in the top-drawer of Ireland's rapidly expanding thriller genre and will almost certainly attract considerable international interest. With two successful thrillers already in the bag - The Boy That Never Was and Only We Know - many readers may be familiar with the fact that Karen Perry is two different people.

The Karen part of the pseudonym is Karen Gillece, who had already written four well-received books under her own name, while Perry is Paul Perry, a highly regarded award-winning poet with a half-dozen or so volumes of verse already in print.

The two have been close friends for many years and five or six years ago, over a pint in Neary's pub, Paul jokingly suggested a collaboration on a psychological thriller as a writing experiment. At the time, Karen was researching a historical novel and saw the idea as a welcome break from the horrors of reading about cholera. The result was The Boy That Never Was, which went on to be a bestseller.

Leaving aside the relatively recent thriller-factory phenomenon embodied by top-selling authors such as James Patterson, the late Tom Clancy and Wilbur Smith, co-authored crime mysteries are not as common as one might imagine.

Back in the late 1920s, New York cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B Lee teamed up as Ellery Queen, and over 40 years the two men created a small crime-fiction industry that consisted of a string of books, a long-running syndicated radio show and a high-circulation monthly short-story magazine. Queen's main character was a private detective named, would you believe, Ellery Queen.

More recently, science fiction writers Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child teamed up to produce a string of highly popular techno-thrillers that began with Relic, the first in a colourful series featuring Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast.

The novel took a highly critical view of the possibilities inherent in genetic manipulation, topped the bestsellers list in 1995 and became a high-grossing Hollywood movie.

Closer to home, British married couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French have produced 14 bestselling psychological thrillers under the name Nicci French, beginning with The Memory Game, which was published in 1997.

Married since 1990, the couple, both journalists, still publish their own work and work separately, Nicci in the attic of their home in the country, and Sean in a shed at the bottom of their garden, emailing chapters back and forth for revision and polishing.

Karen and Paul have actually met Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Both share the same publisher, and got together at a Penguin Books party. Karen and Paul can't understand how you can write together and be married at the same time. Theirs is a more long-distance collaboration, with each of them taking a main character and writing alternate chapters to drive the narrative forward. They then polish each other's chapters so there is a uniformity of style, and there are regular telephone calls, emails and meetings. But when the meetings are over, they each return to their separate lives.

It is a literary partnership that seems to be working brilliantly, producing well-crafted popular fiction of a really high standard.

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