Wednesday 14 November 2018

When even a lipstick can become an accessory to murder

Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

The Hourglass Julie Parsons Macmillan, ?13.50 I'M a fan of the thrillers of Patricia Cornwall and Kathy Reichs - but in all honesty, they don't scare me.

Maybe it's because they're too far-fetched, or because the events take place too far away and I feel at a safe remove; I just can't imagine the plots happening to me or mine.

However, the thrillers of Julie Parsons have always unsettled me. Initially, I thought the reason was because all her books were set in Ireland - indeed, part of the first one, Mary Mary, mentioned the road I live on. All the other locations in this and subsequent novels are so brilliantly woven into the story that it's as if you, the reader, accompany the characters pounding the paths of Dun Laoghaire, South King Street, the Four Courts; as if you are also lurking in shadowy churches or hiding in crowded bars familiar to many - the Lincoln Inn, the Shelbourne Bar.

That story (a missing person case which becomes a murder) is also driven by everyday catalysts, such as images caught by the CCTV cameras on George's Street.

There isn't a false note in any of Parsons's books. While the characters inhabit different worlds (the main character in Mary Mary is aTV psychiatrist; in The Courtship Gift she's a gifted scientist, in Eager to Please a convicted murderess, and so on), the backgrounds are so meticulously researched, the minutiae of their daily lives so exact that they're all absolutely believable.

But of course you couldn't fault Cornwell or Reichson research either - on reflection, what really makesParsons stand out is herwriting. With each book,her style has gone from strength to strength, making The Hourglass terrifying and unputdownable.

The story broadly involves three characters. Lydia Beauchamp lives alone near Skibbereen, in a tumbledown yet gorgeous old house called Trawbawn; it's a house she plotted and schemed to get ownership of, but hers is a lonely existence with only memories and regrets for company. Her husband is long dead and she's had no contact with Grace, her only daughter, for nearly 30 years. Grace left home for England in her late teens following a massive falling out with her mother, after which events took a turn for the traumatic.

Then a young English man, Adam, comes a-calling, charms the vulnerable Lydia and sets in train a host of horrific events - events in which several different stories are effortlessly stitched together by Parsons's stark highly visual writing style.

She has a talent for painting vivid pictures with the minimum of words, making even the simple act of reaching out to open the fridge door and get a drink yet another cause for fear on the character's behalf. So often during The Hourglass you long to shout: "Don't do it, don't go there."

Again, Parsons uses very real, very ordinary catalysts to drive the story, such as mobile phones, or a series of apparently innocent text messages. In this way, something as simple as a lipstick can become an accessory to murder.

An integral part of Julie Parson's talent is her ability to juxtapose the intensely banal, the ordinary and mundane with the surreal and the horrific - somehow rendering the whole a nightmarish tale of terror and torment.

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