Category Archives: Claire McGowan

Show a Little Faith, There’s Magic in the Night*

Most of us like to have some sense of security. And that means, perhaps, a certain amount of predictability. That makes sense, too, since humans like to impose some sort of order on our worlds. But sometimes, there are decisions we take, or new ventures we start, that require having some faith.

In those situations, we give up at least a little of our sense of security in exchange for what we hope will be a better situation. If you’ve ever moved house, started a new job, gotten married or opened your own business, you know the feeling. On the one hand, there’s the anxiety that comes with the unknown. On the other, there’s the faith that things will work out.

That mix can add some interest and tension to a story. And as we see characters dealing with the unknown, and relying on their faith that things will be all right, we can identify with the mixed feelings that come with change. So, it’s no surprise that we see this plot point in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, Anne Bedingfield has recently lost her father. And, since he wasn’t wealthy, she’s going to have to earn her living. She doesn’t want to become a typist or work in an office. But she knows she’ll have to do something with her life. One day, she happens to witness a terrible accident (or was it an accident?) at an Underground station. A man falls or is pushed under an oncoming train. Anne doesn’t know the victim, but she ends up with a piece of paper that the man had in his pocket. After a short time, she learns that the note on the paper refers to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, she books passage on the ship, and finds herself drawn into a web of international intrigue, jewel theft, and murder. It requires some faith to book that passage (which isn’t cheap), but Anne gets past her anxiety, and certainly does have adventure to show for her decision.

Claire McGowan’s The Lost introduces forensic psychologist Claire Maguire. As the novel begins, she’s living and working in London, mostly with missing person cases. She’s good at her job, and her work gets noticed. In fact, she gets an invitation to return to her home town of Ballyterrin, in Northern Ireland, to help set up a cold case review team. Two girls have recently gone missing, so there’s finally enough interest to fund a team. Maguire had her own reasons for leaving Ballyterrin in the first place, so she’s in no great hurry to go back. But, her father, who still lives in the area, has recently broken his leg, and could do with some assistance. Besides, there are the missing girls. So, with a mix of anxiety and faith that things will work out, Maguire goes back to Ballyterrin. And what she finds is a complicated case that turns even more tragic when one of the girls is found dead.

In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, we meet twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his mother, his grandmother, and his younger brother in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. This isn’t a particularly happy family, though. Nineteen years earlier, Steven’s uncle, Billy Peters, went missing and was never found. Everyone’s always believed that a man named Arnold Avery was responsible, but he was never brought to justice on the matter. He’s in prison, though, on charges relating to other child murders. Steven wants to find a way for his family to heal. So, he decides to look for Uncle Billy’s body. He searches the moor but doesn’t have much success. Then, he has another idea. He’ll write to Avery, and to try to get him to tell where the body is. Steven’s anxious about the whole thing, but he also  has faith that he can find out what he wants to know. So, he and Avery begin a correspondence that turns into a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books is the first in his Mobile Library series. Israel Armstrong dreams of being a librarian, maybe even a curator in the British Library someday. But for now, he’s working as a bookseller’s assistant. Then, he gets the opportunity to start his library career. Tumdrum and District Library, in Tumdrum, Ireland, is looking for a librarian, and Armstrong gets the job. He knows that it’s a small place without any real reputation. But, he thinks, it’s a start. So, he pulls up stakes in London, and goes to Ireland. He’s got faith in himself as a librarian, but he’s unprepared for what he finds. When he arrives, he discovers that the library has closed, and that, in fact, he’s been hired to drive a mobile library bus. He refuses the job at first, but then is practically shamed into going through with the contract. That’s when he finds that the bus is broken down and in need of repair, and that the entire collection of books has gone missing. Now he’ll have to find the books and get the library going if he’s to have any success.

And then there’s Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road. Sarah Tucker is at a sort of crossroads in her live. She’s not happy in her marriage, but she doesn’t have a real career or direction. Then, one night, an explosion destroys a house not far from where she lives. The home’s owners, Thomas and Maddie Singleton, have died. But there’s no sign of their four-year-old daughter, Dinah. Worried about the child, Sarah starts to ask questions. But she soon finds that no-one wants to answer them. So, she hires a private investigation company, Oxford Investigations, run by Joe Silvermann and Zoë Boehm. It’s not long before Silvermann lets her know that she’s getting into something much more than she thought. But Sarah persists. When Silvermann is murdered, Sarah knows that she’s gotten into something very dangerous. It’s all very new to her, and she has plenty of very well-founded anxiety. But she also has faith that she can do this. In the end, and after several deaths, she finds out the truth about the Singletons. And it all leads to some very dark truths in some very high government places.

Doing something new and different, especially if there’s danger involved, can cause a lot of anxiety. But there’s also often a sense of faith that things will come out all right. And that mix is both very human, and very effective in a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Claire McGowan, Ian Sansom, Mick Herron

Give Me One Quick Glance*

Authors build suspense in many different ways, depending on the story, the (sub)genre, and a lot more. One way that some authors do this is by referring to a pivotal incident without actually detailing it, at least at first. When it’s done well, this strategy can invite the reader to engage in the story to find out more about the incident. But it’s not easy to do well. And when it’s done poorly, it simply annoys readers, many of whom don’t want to be strung along like that. That said, though, we do see this strategy in crime fiction.

For instance, in Claire McGowan’s The Lost, forensic psychologist Dr. Paula Maguire returns from London to her native Northern Ireland. She’s been persuaded to help set up a cold case review team in her home town of Ballyterrin. She’s reluctant to return, but her father has recently broken a leg, and this will give her the opportunity to help take care of him. Professionally, she gets involved in the search for several young girls who’ve gone missing. But at first, we’re not told why she left Ballyterrin in the first place. It was a pivotal incident, and it’s referred to here and there, but it’s not detailed until later in the novel. We get hints of it as the story goes on, but we’re not told everything right away.

Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys begins with references to a shooting that takes place in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park. We are not told who’s been shot, nor what led to the shooting. What we do learn is that several police officers were involved, and there’s going to be an internal investigation into what happened. The novel then goes on to tell the stories of those officers. It seems that they regularly gather in the park for what they call ‘choir practice’ – drinking, venting, commiserating, and occasional sex with a couple of cocktail waitresses who stop by from time to time. The group has gotten the name ‘the choirboys,’ and they’re the main focus of the investigation. The novel follows these officers in the days and weeks and months before the shooting as they make arrests, work together, and so on. The, we learn of some key events that take place just before the shooting. The story of what actually happened in the shooting isn’t laid out until close to the end of the book, and then the story moves to the impact it all has on those involved.

In a slightly similar way, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy mentions a line-of-duty shooting incident from very early in the novel. Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck has just returned to work after being badly wounded in this incident, and it’s still impacting his mental as well as his physical health. In fact, he’s become so difficult to work with that he’s ‘volunteered’ to head up a new department – ‘Department Q’ – mostly to get him out of others’ way. This department is charged with looking into cases ‘of special interest,’ which are unsolved cases that need attention. The idea is to show that the police are not ignoring them. The first case that Mørck and his new assistant, Hafez al-Assad investigate is the five-year-old disappearance of up-and-coming politician Merete Lynnggard. It was always believed that she went overboard in a terrible ferry accident, but now, new evidence hints that she is still alive. If she is, the team may not have much time left to find her. The shooting incident that left Mørck injured, one colleague dead, and another with paralysis is not detailed until later in the novel. Then, we learn what led up to it and why Mørck feels as he does about it.

Spencer Quinn’s The Right Side is the story of U.S. Army Sergeant LeAnn Hogan. She’s been very badly wounded in a bombing in Afghanistan and has been in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. While she’s at Walter Reed, LeAnn befriends her roommate, Marci Cumming, who’s dealing with her own injuries. Then, Marci unexpectedly dies. With that important support system gone, LeAnn decides to leave Walter Reed. She takes a road trip across the US to Bellville, Washington, Marci’s home town. She arrives too late to attend Marci’s funeral, but she does at least want to pay her respects to the family. That’s when she learns that Marci’s eight-year-old daughter, Mia, has gone missing. LeAnn wants to help find the child if she’s still alive, but she soon learns that not everyone is enthused about that. In fact, she encounters some hostile reactions. That doesn’t really deter her, though. In the meantime, LeAnn hears from Captain Gerald Stallings, who’s investigating the bombing that wounded her. There are several things about the incident that aren’t what they seem, and Stallings wants her help, since she was there. LeAnn doesn’t want to get involved for a number of reasons, but she’s not given any other option. So, very reluctantly, and in exchange for Stalling’s help finding Mia, she agrees. It’s not until later in the story, as Stalling’s investigation continues, that we learn the details of what happened in that bombing.

And then there’s Jane Woodham’s Twister, which takes place mostly in Dunedin. A nasty ‘flu virus has decimated the ranks of the police, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Five days of rain soak the city, and then a twister comes through. In the aftermath of the storm, the body of Tacey Wenlock, who’s been missing for two weeks, is discovered in Ross Creek. Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd is tapped to head the investigation into her death, and he wouldn’t have been the first choice. He’s a skilled detective, but his own daughter, Beth, went missing nine years earlier, and has never been found. He and his wife are still devastated, and no-one would have asked him to handle a case so ‘close to home’ as the Wenlock case if there were any other option. Judd and his team dig in and start looking for the truth. Beth’s disappearance is mentioned early in the book, but not detailed. It’s only as the story goes on that we learn what led to it, how that day played out, and what really happened to her.

And there are times when referring to a pivotal incident like that without detailing it can work quite well. If the author gives enough information so that the reader doesn’t feel cheated (but not so much that the reader isn’t curious), the strategy can work. But it’s tricky and can easily fall flat if it’s not done well.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Cramps’ What’s Behind The Mask.

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Filed under Claire McGowan, Jane Woodham, Joseph Wambaugh, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Spencer Quinn

Big News!*

As this is posted, it’s 44 years since the publication of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men. As you’ll know, these journalists were instrumental in uncovering the Watergate scandal that ended up bringing down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Woodward and Bernstein’s exposé was one of the more famous in journalism, but it’s hardly been the only one. Journalists and other writers have been doing exposés for a long time, both before and since All the President’s Men was published. Fictional characters have done that sort of writing, too. Whether such characters are sleuths, victims, or play another role, they’re woven into the crime fiction. And it’s interesting to see how those exposés and the people who work on them are depicted in the genre.

In Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot, we are introduced to Canadian journalist Kathryn Morrissey. She has written a controversial exposé on the way that several wealthy and celebrated Canadians treat their children. In doing so, she strips away the ‘nice, perfect’ lives these people seem to have. And, she upsets a lot of people. In fact, one of them, Sam Parker, is so incensed by the book that he shoots at, and wounds, Morrissey. He’s arrested, and hires prominent attorney Zack Shreve to defend him. It’s not going to be an easy case; after all, there’s no question that Parker shot Morrissey. But Shreve is a gifted lawyer. Among other things, the novel raises interesting questions about journalism, exposés, and the limits of what’s published.

Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors begins as Australian Federal Police (AFP) detective Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is lured back to police work after some time away. Alec Dennet, a member of Gough Whitlam’s 1972-1975 government, has been found murdered. He was visiting a writer’s retreat, Uriarra, located near Canberra, to work on his memoirs. Also there was his editor, Lorraine Starke, who’s also been killed. The police soon discover that Dennet’s manuscript is missing. This leads Chen and his team to suspect that something in the manuscript triggered the murders, and that’s not out of the question. It was said that Dennet’s book was to be, among other things, an exposé that might very well embarrass some highly-placed people. It was also said that the manuscript was going to reveal the truth about the alleged conspiracy that brought down the Whitlam government. Chen and his team reason that, if they can find out who took the manuscript, they might find out who the killer is. As it turns out, the case is more complicated than that. As the AFP team look into the matter, we get an interesting look at the impact that exposés can have.

Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers features Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s been working very hard on an exposé of dubious land developer Denny Graham. He’s got both money and influence, so it’s not easy to find people who are willing to talk to her about him. Even people who aren’t intimidated by Graham’s status don’t exactly want it to be public knowledge that they’ve been swindled. Thorne has finally gotten a few people who are willing to be interviewed when her boss sends her on a different course. It’s soon to be the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Springboks (South Africa’s rugby team) tour of New Zealand. Often simply called ‘The Tour,’ this event was controversial. At the time, South Africa still had a strict policy of apartheid, and plenty of New Zealanders didn’t want the team to visit for that reason. Others wanted to watch the rugby. And the police simply wanted to keep order. There were clashes and confrontations, and Thorne’s boss wants her to do a piece on the tour. Thorne isn’t interested, mostly because she doesn’t see any new angle on the story. She also doesn’t want to lose her tenuous hold on the people willing to talk about Denny Graham. Then, she finds a unique angle on the tour story, and ends up looking into a 30-year-old murder.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning introduces his protagonist, Jack Parlabane. As the novel begins, Parlabane’s just returned to his native Edinburgh from Los Angeles. He wakes up one morning to the sound of a loud commotion. Wondering what’s going on, he leaves his flat and goes down the stairs to the one below. Then, he remembers that he’s closed his door, locking himself out of his home. His plan is to go into the downstairs flat, go through a window there, and re-enter his own flat through the corresponding window in it. When he goes into the downstairs flat, though, he finds the body of a man who’s obviously been murdered. Parlabane’s an investigative journalist, so he is curious. But he’s also smart enough to know that he doesn’t want to be caught at the scene of a crime. He’s making his way towards the window when the police, in the form of Detective Constable (DC) Jenny Dalziel find him. Partly to clear himself, and partly because of his curiosity, Parlabane gets involved in the investigation – and ends up doing an exposé that involves health care, politics, and government.

And then there’s Claire McGowan’s The Lost, which introduces her protagonist, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire. In the novel, Maguire travels from London back to her hometown of Ballyterrin, Northern Ireland. She’s to be part of a new Cold Case team that’s finally been funded. Their first case involves some girls who have gone missing, and the team gets right to work. The trail leads to some secrets that some well-respected people would much rather keep quiet. Along the way, Maguire meets up again with her old flame, Aidan O’Hara, who edits the local paper. He’s used to doing very safe ‘fluff’ stories, but he gets his chance at an exposé with this case.

Exposés can be interesting. When they’re accurately done, they can shed important light on things that are happening, too – things people should know. And writers who do exposés can make for interesting fictional characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jason Robert Brown.

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Filed under Christopher Brookmyre, Claire McGowan, Gail Bowen, Kel Robertson, Paddy Richardson

In The Spotlight: Claire McGowan’s The Lost

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Sometimes it’s very hard to go back to the old home town, especially after being away for several years, and especially if one left as a young person and returns as an adult. Homecomings like that can be fraught with all sorts of tension and challenges, even if one has fond memories. Let’s take a look at how that plays out today, and turn the spotlight on Claire McGowan’s The Lost, the first of her Paula Maguire novels.

Maguire is a London forensic psychologist who works with the police on missing person cases, mostly. Her work is noticed, and she gets a request to go back to her home town of Ballyterrin, in Northern Ireland, to help set up a cold case review team. Funding for the team has finally gone through after two girls, Magella Ward and Cathy Carr, have gone missing from the area. Maguire is reluctant to go back; she had her own reasons for leaving in the first place. But her father, who still lives in Ballyterrin, recently broke his leg, and this would give her the opportunity to look after him. Besides, there are the missing girls, and that’s a special interest of hers. So, she finally agrees to go.

She soon joins the team, which will be led by Inspector Guy Brooking of the Met, and everyone starts in to work. Tragically, Cathy Carr is soon found dead. Now, the team has the job of tracing the girl’s last weeks and months to find out whether she left of her own will or was abducted. Meanwhile, they’re also looking to find out what happened to Majella Ward.

There soon turn out to be several possibilities. For one thing, neither girl’s family is particularly helpful. Cathy Carr’s family don’t see what else they can tell the police that they haven’t already. And Majella’s Ward’s family are travellers. They know very well what most people think of their group, and they are most definitely not inclined to trust the police. And, often enough, a family member is involved when a young person disappears. For another thing, both girls had been visiting a place called the Mission. The Mission is a religious group that claims to be trying to keep girls away from early sex, drugs, and drinking, and on the ‘straight and narrow.’ Could the Mission have had something to do with what happened to these girls? When word comes that another girl associated with the Mission, Louise McCourt, committed suicide not many months earlier, it seems more and more likely that that might be the case.

Slowly, Maguire, Brooking, and the team start to put the pieces together. It takes time, and several proverbial wrong turns, but, in the end, they find out what happened to the three girls. They also find that it ties in with two other missing girls who disappeared in the 1980s, and with the town’s past.

The novel takes place in Maguire’s home town. It’s the sort of town where people know one another and have for a number of years. And the Maguire family has been a part of that fabric. So, when Maguire returns to Ballyterrin, everyone knows very quickly that ‘wee Paula Maguire’ has come home. In the course of the novel, she reunites with plenty of people who knew her when she lived there, and that’s got its awkward moments. For instance, Maguire’s old flame Aidan O’Hara is now the editor of the local newspaper. Another old friend, Saoirse McLoughlin, is now a doctor. There are other people, too, who remember her. And that’s not always for the good. Maguire left Ballyterrin abruptly, and for reasons that she’s never really discussed, not even with her closest friends. So, there are some hurt feelings. But there’s also the sense that Maguire belongs there.

The sociocultural setting for the novel is contemporary Northern Ireland. Although the official hostilities of the Troubles have ended, they’ve left their mark. People still know who’s Catholic and who’s not. And people have to live in the same town with others who were on the opposite side in the war, and who might even have killed a friend or family member. Readers who don’t want to read a novel about the Troubles will be pleased to know that this novel doesn’t focus on that particular conflict. But those times have deeply affected the area, and the characters.

This part of Northern Ireland is very traditional in a lot of ways. Abortion is strictly illegal, an unplanned pregnancy is a cause for real shame, especially in teenagers, and homosexuality isn’t exactly condoned. That culture plays a role in the way several characters in the story behave.

The novel is told mostly from Maguire’s point of view, so we learn about her. She and her family are Catholic, although her father was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). She’s not really observant, but she went to the local Catholic schools, and so on. She has her own sorrows and ‘ghosts,’ but she doesn’t drown them in drinking, so to speak. She’s far from perfect – she makes mistakes both personal and professional – but she has solid instincts, and she is good at her job.

The solution to the mystery is a very sad one (and, no, in case you’re wondering, the person responsible is not a crazed serial killer). Finding out the truth doesn’t make anyone happier, really. But it does bring closure, for what that’s worth. And the solution gives insight into the way history can impact the present.

The Lost is  the story of a small Northern Ireland community, and how it deals with (and has dealt with) tragedy. It takes place against a distinctive cultural, historical, and social background, and features a sleuth who is a part of that background. But what’s your view? Have you read The Lost? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 18 June/Tuesday, 19 June – Plugged – Eoin Colfer

Monday, 25 June/Tuesday, 26 June – A Cut-Like Wound – Anita Nair

Monday, 2 July/Tuesday, 3 July – Involuntary Witness – Gianrico Carofiglio

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Filed under Claire McGowan, The Lost