Parsons makes punchy return with shades of Ellroy
Crime: The Therapy House, Julie Parsons, New Island, tpbk, 329 pages, €13.95
New Zealand-born but long-time resident in Ireland, Julie Parsons boasts a CV more varied than the average author. As well as producing five previous crime novels, she's worked as a radio and TV producer for RTÉ and written a novella and radio plays.
The Therapy House, Parsons' first full-length fiction in almost a decade, takes place during the once-in-a-generation heatwave of 2013. Retired Garda Michael McLoughlin has just moved to a rambling old pile in Dún Laoghaire, from his old home on the other side of the Liffey - and into a real mess of trouble.
McLoughlin is finding it hard to cope with retirement, so this house - the definitive fixer-upper - is something to occupy the mind. Among other past iterations, it used to be a psychiatric institute (hence the novel's title): one of those lovely, labyrinthine, charmingly decrepit old buildings you find in many parts of Dublin, especially along the coast.
It's a swanky-ish area, expertly captured by Parsons, with a next-door neighbour of some renown. John Hegarty is a retired High Court judge and son of a War of Independence hero.
As the book opens, he's buying some nice sherry in preparation for that night's regular visit of two other neighbours for a drink and a game of backgammon. Before the night is over, Hegarty will have been tortured and shot in the face.
McLoughlin finds the body, and thus gets involved, tangentially at first, in the subsequent murder investigation. But as Parsons' clever, complex plot unfolds, McLoughlin's stake in this deadly game becomes higher - and parts of the past, including his own, get inextricably entangled with the current Hegarty case.
Obviously it's difficult to outline too many plot details without ruining the surprise. And in a book like The Therapy House, the several narrative surprises are one of its main pleasures.
So, in (very) brief: the Hegarty family has some extremely dark secrets; McLoughlin is persuaded to deal with a blackmailer in return for information that may help convict the IRA man who killed his garda father; a notorious criminal gang may or may not be behind the murder, though their reasons seem unclear; an English neighbour of Hegarty seems to be playing his own, rather odd game.
Even the house itself, McLoughlin's new abode, being so old and with so many lives having passed through it, feels like a sentient thing, holding on to its own secrets until the time is right or the urge to divulge is irresistible.
There's so much going on in The Therapy House that, I must confess, I felt somewhat bamboozled at times. But Parsons ties it all up satisfactorily for a finish, and quite elegantly: the amount of "now I will explain what I did and why I did it" is kept to a minimum. The identity of the killer is nicely judged, too; it feels both surprising and plausible at the same time.
What I liked most about the novel - and this is purely a personal-taste thing - is the writing style. A lot of crime fiction, while nearly always solidly crafted, can be a little slow-paced and unexciting.
The Therapy House, though, is written in a punchy, stop-start kind of style: a lot of half-sentences, quick blurts of words, sentences snapped off midway through or jumping straight in, boots first, halfway through. By that description, it should be almost garbled or fractured, but in reality has a rhythm and power that lifts the reader along.
Though not quite at his ultra-brief-sentence level, this style reminded me at times of the great James Ellroy, as did the tortuous storyline, explosions of shocking violence and unflinching exploration of the black heart of humanity. A comparison, I think, most crime writers would be happy with.
Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl