Tuesday 10 December 2019

Books: Chilling thriller probes deadly dangers online

Can Anybody Help Me?, Sinead Crowley, Quercus, €14.99

Author Sinead Crowley
Author Sinead Crowley
Can Anybody Help Me? by Sinead Crowley

Síle McArdle

T'S rare for me to describe a book as a 'page turner', but Sinéad Crowley's chilling debut novel definitely fits this bill. Can Anybody Help Me? veers with exemplary pace between an internet forum for expectant or new mothers and a cruel interconnected world where exposing yourself online can have deadly consequences.

Many of the sleep-deprived and bewildered first-timers in particular are addicted to Netmammy where, no matter how trivial the query, apparently useful and sympathetic answers flow, day and night. No wonder blind faith builds fast from such often-intimate exchanges on the all-consuming topic of motherhood. A language of abbreviation binds the women even tighter within a sanctuary they believe is safe and acceptably private.

Frequent Netmammy user Yvonne is a struggling SAHM (stay-at-home mum) with an annoyingly well-groomed MIL (mother-in-law) and a suave DH (darling husband) who has just landed his dream job as executive producer on a new current-affairs show fronted by his university buddy Eamonn Teevan.

Yvonne married Gerry Mulhern and relocated from her London flat to a magazine-feature period house in his home town of Dublin – all during her unplanned pregnancy. No wonder overwhelmed LondonMum (Yvonne's online tag) becomes over-reliant on the site, where she makes a heartfelt connection with single mother MyBabba.

Many contributors exchange PMs (private messages), which is how Yvonne knows the unusual Irish name of MyBabba's toddler daughter. So, when a woman matching all those credentials goes missing, she cannot quell her unease and phones the Garda.

But Yvonne's message reaches workaholic Detective Sergeant Claire Boyle at the same time as news of a decomposing body found in a Dublin block of Celtic Tiger ghost apartments – and the Netmammy connection is lost.

In any case, MyBabba begins posting again, and Yvonne retracts her concerns.

Down-to-earth Claire – 20 weeks pregnant at 39 but pushing herself relentlessly anyway – then throws her considerable energies into solving the seemingly motiveless murder of Miriam Tuohy, helped by her irritatingly efficient sidekick Phillip Flynn.

For Yvonne, the Netmammy exchanges – funny, sarcastic, fearful, caring – continue as normal ... or do they? Among the harmless posts, which make for welcome breathers as the considerable suspense mounts, are more killing words of entrapment.

In addition to building tension, Sinéad Crowley's other shining talent throughout this multi-layered mystery is the ability to give memorable dimension to even the most peripheral character with a few succinct words.

I also loved this author's sharp, wry, irreverent tone, especially when describing the hapless estate agent who discovered Miriam Tuohy's corpse – and left Claire Boyle wondering when had the memo been sent out to everyone under 30 that all sentences must end with a question mark?

Unfortunately, Can Anybody Help Me? is far-fetched in places on smaller details (for instance, would Yvonne's pregnancy really have been allowed to progress to almost 10 months?) and one or two large ones (how could the person making that final murder attempt possibly have gotten away with it?).

But the characters and overall plot are so strong you'll forgive the author and keep turning the pages.

This thriller also explores a disturbing global issue and yet, here and there, I felt it was the wrong side of provincial. All books must be set somewhere, of course, and for the most part the earthy Irish expressions and humour worked well. However, a few tweaks and omissions would have made an exponential difference to this debut novel's commercial appeal.

Can Anybody Help Me? had the potential to be an international bestseller but, regrettably, I believe the end product lacks the necessary sophistication.

That said, I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.

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