Tuesday 20 August 2019

Books: Stories of hide and seek

Thrillers: Midnight Sun, Jo Nesbo, Harvill Secker, pbk, 214 pages, €14.99
* The Silent Dead, Claire McGowan, Headline, tpbk, 374 pages, €22.10

Co Down author Claire McGowan
Co Down author Claire McGowan
Norway's Jo Nesbo

Myles McWeeney

Jo Nesbo returns with an on-the-run hitman seeking salvation while Claire McGowan's feisty forensic psychologist suspects foul play in the hunt for a missing IRA splinter group.

The last decade saw the unstoppable rise of Scandinavian crime fiction, and Jo Nesbo definitely makes the front ranks. The former footballer has sold 23 million books, putting him up with big-hitters like Larsson and Mankell.

They, of course, are Swedish; Nesbo is Norwegian. And the far north of Norway is where he sets Midnight Sun, a one-off thriller (this is not one of his more famous Harry Hole books).

Kåsund is a fictitious town within a real place: Finnmark, Norway's most northerly county. It borders Finland, Russia and the Arctic Ocean. Half the county is above the treeline. And it's bloody freezing.

It also enjoys/endures day-round sunshine during summer, hence our title. The novel opens with Jon Hansen disembarking from a bus, having chosen Kåsund more-or-less randomly. Where he's arrived doesn't matter as much as what he's running from. Jon was a debt-collector for a ruthless Oslo drug lord. Having failed to carry out a contract hit - morally, he just couldn't do it - he flees, with some of the gangster's money and a menacing assassin on his tail.

Hiding out in this wind-blasted hamlet, he befriends Lea, a beautiful but troubled woman, and her lively son Knut. Can Jon (calling himself Ulf) escape with his life? More importantly, can he redeem it by saving others?

I haven't read much Scandinavian crime fiction. I had this impression of bloated, overstretched, boring work; I wasn't dissuaded by endless ice-bound landscapes, but endless pages of laboured exposition.

Midnight Sun, however, is short, brisk, emotionally compelling and stylishly written. The set-up is familiar, but it's a good one, it endures: on-the-run outlaw gets a shot at salvation. You'll find yourself really rooting for Lea, Knut and even Jon/Ulf: hoping there's just enough darkness to hide in, under that ever-present sun.

- Darragh McManus

From about the age of nine, Claire McGowan, from Rostrevor in Co Down, knew she wanted to be a writer, but somehow as she grew up, she never managed to buckle down and get a book started. Gifted academically, she read English and French at Oxford and spent some time in China and France before moving to London to work for various charitable organisations. But she was always interested in writing and particularly in thrillers. She became the first director of the Crime Writers' Association in the UK and is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at City University London.

Her arrival at the forefront of the burgeoning Irish crime writing scene has been nothing short of meteoric. Her first book, a highly praised standalone novel called The Fall, was published in 2012 and this book, The Silent Dead, is the third instalment in her remarkably successful series featuring forensic psychologist Dr Paula Maguire.

Like her creator, Paula Maguire hotfooted it out of Northern Ireland as soon as she could, but family circumstances brought her home. She reluctantly accepted an attachment to the North's Missing Person's Response Unit based in the border town of Ballyterrin.

Feisty and bright, Paula is not a team player by temperament, hates doing things by the rule book and finds it difficult to deal with the innate chauvinism of her senior officers and the generally sexist attitudes of her fellow detectives. She also has a decidedly chaotic private life, and at the start of this third investigation is seven months pregnant with her first child. To make matters worse, she does not know if the father is a married colleague or her childhood sweetheart, a local newspaper editor.

When former IRA terrorist Mickey Doyle is found hanging in Creggan Forest Park, it is clear it was not suicide. Mickey was one of the Mayday Five, members of an IRA splinter group calling themselves Ireland First, widely thought to be responsible for a massive bomb blast in a little town calls ­Crossanure that killed 16 men, women and children and gravely injured hundreds of others. The five had been put on trial a year before but had walked free when the case against them collapsed because of police mistakes.

As Paula and her colleagues begin their investigation, they realise they are in a race against time since the other four members of the group have disappeared. Have they gone to ground or have they been abducted? That question is answered when a second terrorist is found gruesomely murdered. But who is responsible and can they be tracked down before more killings are perpetrated?

At this remove, in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement's profound changes to the fabric of Northern Ireland's society, it is often hard to remember just how numbingly atrocious random bombings like those in Enniskillen and Omagh actually were. In her multilayered new offering, Claire McGowan succeeds in bringing home just how awful those times were through the graphic recollections of the families of the dead in the Crossanure bombing.

In Dr Paula Maguire she has also created a wonderfully complex character whose struggle to get to the bottom of the murders before her baby is born manages to hold the reader's interest throughout, and the supporting cast of police, former terrorists and victims are skilfully drawn.

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