Tuesday 19 February 2019

Spain keeps us guessing with clever Irish thriller

Crime: The ­Confession, Jo Spain, Quercus, hardback, 390 pages, €15

Distinct voices: Jo Spain's novel is punchy and energetic
Distinct voices: Jo Spain's novel is punchy and energetic
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Rising Irish talent Jo Spain takes a break from her Inspector Tom Reynolds series for this one-off thriller, which spins on a clever and unusual premise. As the title suggests, the book begins with a ­confession, so we know whodunnit from the outset. The fun and excitement lie in discovering why.

Spain opens with disgraced banker Harry McNamara and wife Julie watching TV. He's narrowly escaped prison for dodgy dealings at the fictional HM Capital, his own financial fiefdom which played a major role in Ireland's 2008 crash.

They've been slowly reassembling the broken pieces of their life, but that all goes to hell when a man strolls into their lavish South Dublin home, swinging a golf club, and knocks seven shades out of Harry.

A few hours later, the attacker presents himself at the nearest garda station. JP Carney admits assaulting McNamara, but claims he has no idea why he did it?

The gardaí, psychiatrists, DPP: all are happy to take this on face value and have JP committed to the Central Mental Hospital. They have their man, in custody, signed confession full of regret; a nice quick wrap-up to a case that might have got out of control, given the high-profile victim. But investigating detective Alice Moody isn't sure.

She's a great creation: a large, brassy woman, foul-mouthed and smart-arsed and a talented detective with a high clearance rate. And Moody smells something rotten in the mysterious JP.

He's a memorable creation, too: a damaged kid from a broken home, dragged up in London and Dublin by an alcoholic father after his mentally ill mother lit out years before; his younger sister, Charlie, about the only thing keeping him tethered to normality, reality, sanity.

So was he just a weirdo who flipped one night, Harry McNamara the unlucky victim, or is there more to JP than meets the eye? Is a longer game being played by this seemingly ingenuous man? Moody is convinced of it, but this is driven more by a gut instinct, some investigative sixth sense, than any hard evidence.

Spain tells her story through that common modern device in crime fiction of overlapping narrators: in this case, Julie, Moody and JP. It's a testament to her skill as a writer that each voice is distinct; sometimes these competing narrators blur into one another, confusing the story and the reader both.

Not as welcome is how Spain also flips between first-person and third-person, and between present tense and past tense. It's a matter of personal taste, but I find it a bit gimmicky and, given how well overall the book is crafted, rather needless.

Now, stylistically, there's nothing special about The Confession. It has that sort of flat, indistinct style that's everywhere in crime novels nowadays. You could mix 'n' match passages from this with a hundred similar books and not notice. For someone who loves both crime and literary fiction, this is a little disappointing.

All that said: as an entertainment, The Confession works extremely well. I really did fly through it in two or three sittings.

I think it's mainly because, unlike many of these type of novels, Spain's is fast-paced and full of incident. She doesn't drag it out with lengthy dialogue mired in plot exposition, or uninspired descriptions - as if striving to meet some predetermined word count and stretching the material beyond its natural limits.

The Confession is punchy and energetic, extraneous fat dexterously excised by Spain's authorial scalpel, leaving a satisfying cut of lean fictional meat. A brilliant hook and rapid-fire ride towards resolution: in a world of tedious Girl on the Train knock-offs, that's more than enough.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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