Sunday 16 June 2019

Books: Lady killers queens of the Irish crime scene

QUEENS OF IRISH CRIME WRITING: From left: Jane Casey, Tana French and Louise Phillips
QUEENS OF IRISH CRIME WRITING: From left: Jane Casey, Tana French and Louise Phillips

Anne Marie Scanlon

A decade ago, when Ireland was still riding the Tiger, Irish women were the leading writers in the 'chick lit' genre. Fittingly, in the current period of austerity, Ireland's newest female writers have turned their talents to the darker world of crime. One of the first Irish women to start examining the sinister side of society, with In the Woods in 2007, Tana French, is now the undisputed queen of Irish crime fiction.

The Secret Place is set in St Kilda's, a posh Southside boarding school for girls. A year earlier, the body of Chris Harper, a 16-year-old boy from the neighbouring St Colm's, was discovered in the grounds. The case had been cold until pupil Holly Mackey, daughter of a high ranking policeman, finds a note on 'the Secret Place' (a noticeboard for Kilda's girls to anonymously express their thoughts) saying "I know who killed him". Holly, like any good copper's daughter immediately delivers the note to ambitious young detective Stephen Moran and he is co-opted to help the difficult and unpopular Antoinette Conway to investigate.

It soon becomes apparent that the killer is one of two quartets of girls who had access to the art room on the night Chris died and Holly herself is one of the suspects. The plot jumps back and forth from the present day investigation which takes place over a day and the events leading up to the murder and as both the present and the past draw closer to each other the tension increases.

The action takes place almost entirely within the confines of St Kilda's and French is masterly at evoking the claustrophobia and isolation of such a closed environment. At the risk of sounding like a fan (which I am) French is simply a brilliant writer. Like her contemporary John Connolly, her books transcend genre. Her prose is 'literary fiction', her plots are intricate, her characters and dialogue compellingly real.

While French has carved out a genre that is very much her own, the latest crop of Irish women crime writers are producing more traditional crime novels and police procedurals. Louise Phillips, Claire McGowan and Jane Casey have followed in the footsteps of Ian Rankin (Rebus), Mark Billingham (Thorne) and Val McDermid (Dr Tony Hill) by following the fortunes of a serial protagonist. McGowan's Dr Paula Maguire is a forensic psychologist, Phillips Dr Kate Pearson, a criminal psychologist and Casey's Maeve Kerrigan is a detective in London's Metropolitan Police Force.

The Paula Maguire series is set in the small border town of Ballyterrin where Paula grew up and has recently returned. Paula's father, now retired, used to be one of the few Catholics in the RUC. Her mother vanished when Paula was a teen and nobody knows why, whether she went of her own accord or she was 'disappeared'.

The Dead Ground, is Paula Maguire's second outing and begins with the abduction of a new-born baby from the local maternity unit. Soon another child goes missing and a pregnant woman disappears. The investigation leads Paula into the realm of an alleged psychic with a huge flock of believers and a militant anti-abortion group. Abortion, Paula observes, is "one of the few issues that hardliners on both sides might unite on,". It's also personal as Paula is struggling with an unplanned pregnancy.

McGowan, like French, knows how to spin a good yarn, she has a wonderful ear for dialogue, writes believable and compelling characters (Paula is no paragon, she's a normal woman doing an extraordinary job) and is able to go from describing absolutely gruesome crime scenes to injecting her narrative with well-placed and subtle humour. "It wasn't strictly necessary to drive an armoured Jeep in these days of peace, but he seemed to like it. He also liked playing Bon Jovi at high volume in the car. It was disconcerting to go to crime scenes with 'Shot Through the Heart' ringing in your ears."

Dr Kate Pearson, like Paula Maguire, is an ordinary woman but her work takes her to some very dark places. The prologue of Last Kiss, the third book by Louise Phillips to feature Kate, is set in 1982 when an unnamed teenager gives birth alone in the woods. The girl dies but her baby daughter is saved. But for what fate?

The story begins in the present day when married art dealer Rick Shevlin is found murdered in a grand Dublin hotel. Kate quickly detects that the dead man has been posed like 'The Hanged Man' tarot card, and soon links are made with other similar murders in Europe. The action moves from Dublin, where Kate lives and works, to Paris and Rome. While abroad, Kate and her police colleague DI O'Connor finally acknowledge that their relationship is more than just a professional one.

Phillips is superb at suspense, at conjuring up a dark menacing atmosphere, but her underlying humanity stops it from becoming too bleak. The baby girl from the prologue, after being brought up in a loveless, violent and sexually abusive household, now kills the lovers she thinks have let her down. Edgar, her latest, might well be the 'keeper' and she's not going to let his wife Sandra get in the way.

Jane Casey is from Dublin but all five of her Maeve Kerrigan books are set in London. The latest The Kill sees Maeve and her throwback boss DI Josh Derwent trying to find a spree killer who is targeting members of the force. The murders are differently executed and the victims appear random, but are they? Maeve's long-term policeman boyfriend Rob narrowly escapes death but the repercussions leave their formerly good relationship in tatters. The themes, especially that of historical police corruption, are very current and Casey is particularly good at weaving in the 'procedure' part of the narrative without it appearing clunky.

These criminal masterminds are so good at story-telling that not reading them should be against the law.

  • The Secret Place, Tana French, Hodder & Stoughton, €21.50
  • Last Kiss, Louise Phillips, Hachette, €14.99
  • The Dead Ground, Claire McGowan, Headline, €11.95
  • The Kill, Jane Casey, Ebury, €15.99

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