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Sinéad Crowley’s thriller smudges the borders of crime and supernatural mystery

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Sinéad Crowley, author of The Belladonna Maze

Sinéad Crowley, author of The Belladonna Maze

The Belladonna Maze by Sinéad Crowley

The Belladonna Maze by Sinéad Crowley

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Sinéad Crowley, author of The Belladonna Maze

As arts and media correspondent for RTÉ, Sinéad Crowley knows books from the audience perspective. With The Belladonna Maze, she proves that she knows how to write them pretty well too.

Not that she didn’t already have a solid reputation: her previous crime novels did well and she has been shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year awards.

But in this one she steps up another level or two in terms of quality; it’s very good, one of the best Irish mysteries I’ve read in the last few years.

The story is clever and involving, the characters are plausible and empathetic, the pacing is just-so and the prose is crisp and unfussy — everything you’d want, really, in a thriller.

What really helps The Belladonna Maze to soar is the way Crowley has — à la fellow ‘Emerald moir’ author John Connolly — introduced a faint element of the supernatural, smudging the borders between crime and fantasy, maybe even a little soupçon of horror. (But is it actually supernatural, or all these apparent manifestations merely phantasms created by troubled minds? Ah well: for that, dear reader, you’ll have to see for yourself.)

The novel jumps between two timelines. First, in 2007, Dubliner Grace gets a job as a nanny for little Skye, daughter of Anglo-Irish charmer Patrick and his English sculptor wife Isla. They live at a country pile, Hollowpark, outside fictional Lisheesha, Co Roscommon.

The secondary storyline runs through the middle of the 19th century, before and after the Famine. Feisty, intelligent and warm-hearted Deirdre is heir to Hollowpark. Her fortunes rise and fall — we’ll keep schtum on the specifics — but the important thing is her connection to the house and its extensive gardens, including that titular maze.

Hollowpark, she insists, looks after its own and they in turn must look after it, like a West of Ireland version of Susanna Clarke’s fantastical house in Piranesi. This symbiotic relationship will play a crucial part in how Deirdre’s story unfolds — and later, events in modern times.

Back in 2007, Grace settles into life at Hollowpark. Her employer family are sweet and generous. Patrick’s mother Delia is loud and cheerful. Grace meets other locals, including an amateur historian, and hears the story of Catherine Clancy, a girl who went missing one Halloween night in the 1970s.

She gets to know this rambling old pile, with its array of rooms, stone tower, gatehouse and, of course, spooky-beautiful maze.

And there’s a little stone in her shoe: she thinks she sees the ghost of a troubled teenager. Naturally, Grace assumes her imagination is playing tricks on her. The house is old and creaky and can feel creepy at night. She has a tendency to panic attacks and apocalyptic visions.

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Obviously, nobody is there — but this nobody keeps showing up in her eyes and, after a while, her ears: “Find me. Help me.” When visions of Deirdre, shawled and sombre, also start to appear, Grace really begins doubting her mind.

Meanwhile Delia pushes on, full-steam ahead, with plans to convert Hollowpark into tourist accommodation. An American descendant of Ciarán O’Mahony — Deirdre’s childhood friend, evicted by her cousin — is bringing his clan for a Halloween shindig in the Old Country. And Grace might be falling in love with Patrick — such a nanny cliché that it makes her cringe, but not quite enough to damp down those feelings.

It’s a mad whirl of plotlines, which I’m probably making sound much more confusing than it is. Rest assured, Crowley keeps firm control of it all; the various narratives are clearly and precisely laid out. And the pay-off is satisfying, plaiting together those strands and resolving the mystery of Catherine Clancy’s disappearance.

Perhaps the strongest feature of The Belladonna Maze is that paranormal element. It’s an interesting sub-genre, or blend of genres, the supernatural mystery; the gothic atmosphere, that slightly heightened kind of mood you get, is very enjoyable.

The book’s setting suits that mood, too. You can’t beat an old stately manor as location for a murder-mystery; this is why Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier will forever appeal.

And the maze, tower and Wuthering Heights-esque house chime nicely with a sense of the uncanny or otherworldly. In theory you could set a (part-) ghost story in a Tallaght garda station or Galway shopping centre, but it mightn’t sit quite as right.

Impressively, Crowley mixes that gothic brew — gloominess and dread, the bony hand of the past, dark secrets lurking within dark hearts — without resorting to florid language. There must be a temptation to consciously or self-consciously “write” with a story like this — lots of adverbs and adjectives and visual descriptions — and thus, a risk of over-writing.

No fear of that here: she lets the tale look after itself (and the house look after everything else).

Darragh McManus’s books include ‘The Driving Force’ and ‘Pretend We’re Dead’

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The Belladonna Maze by Sinéad Crowley

The Belladonna Maze by Sinéad Crowley

The Belladonna Maze by Sinéad Crowley

Crime: The ­Belladonna Maze by Sinéad Crowley
Head of Zeus, 393 pages, trade paperback €14.99; e-book £5.79


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