At the back end of last year I stumbled on Claire McGowan’s second novel, The Lost. This was the first book featuring Paula McGuire, a forensic psychologist who returns to her childhood home in the borderlands between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to look after her injured father only to find herself seconded to the PSNI’s Missing Persons Response Unit to help in the search for two teenaged girls. At the time, I said how much I was enjoying the book and that I hoped McGowan would stick with Paula and develop a series that would continue to look at some of the very particular social problems that still beset the Province in the wake of the Troubles. Well, sometimes you actually do get what you wish for and here, in the shape of The Dead Ground, is that second novel and what is more a novel that ends in such a way as to pretty much ensure at least a third.
The Dead Ground explores a subject that is likely to cause heated debate in any community but which, in the highly charged religious atmosphere that still exists in Northern Ireland, is one that might explode into violence at any moment, namely the subject of abortion. This is not, however, a problem that would naturally come to the attention of the MPRU. It does so here because McGowan couples it with a case of the abduction of a new born baby from the local hospital and thus allows herself to widen her focus to consider the many ways in which the birth of a child can be viewed: from something totally joyous through to the result of an act of terrible violation, with any number of possible scenarios in between.
The search for the individuals behind the abduction and the subsequent attacks on women who have decided to go through with their pregnancies after consulting a doctor prepared to help them obtain an abortion in England is particularly relevant to Paula. This is no spoiler, because it is apparent from the very first pages that she herself is in the early stages of pregnancy and as a result of the circumstances behind the conception finds herself considering whether or not she should keep the baby. More important immediately is keeping the knowledge of her condition from the people with whom she works, something that proves difficult as there are those involved in the investigation who seem to have second sight.
One of these is the faith healer, Magdalena Croft, brought in at the request of the parents of the missing baby to attempt to discover where the child might be. Croft, on the strength of her claims to have visions from the Virgin Mary, has gathered a large following of people who believe that she can heal them of their fertility problems. As many of these couples have then gone on to have children she has had no difficulty in amassing large sums of money, although none of it appears to have gone into the building of the church that she has promised to construct. Croft’s part in the narrative allows McGowan to explore the manner in which desperation forces individuals away from the material world and into a search for answers from less tangible forces. Unfortunately, this can often mean that they fall prey to charlatans, the sort of people whose evil leaves me speechless. The question is whether or not Magdalena Croft falls into that category.
In discussing recent crime fiction I’ve frequently commented on the way in which the lead investigator’s back story has seemed either implausible, has muddled the main narrative or both. Paula does have a back story but unfortunately there is nothing implausible about it. Her mother Margaret is one of the Disappeared, those members of the Irish community who vanished from their homes without trace during the Troubles, in most cases to be killed by paramilitaries and buried in an unmarked grave. Whether this was the case with Mrs MacGuire or whether she simply had enough of living with the tension of a husband who was a member of the RUC and walked out, is unclear both to the reader and to Paula and her father, PJ. Seventeen years after the event, PJ is ready to move on, but Paula, particularly given her condition, still feels the need to search for her mother. However, this is never permitted to get in the way of the main story. If it is relevant it is allowed to seep in, but it is in no sense a driver of the narrative. This is one of the ways in which I think McGowan stands out amongst the many young authors who are trying to make their way in the field of the police procedural. There is a sense of total integration of the strands that make up the novel. What is there is necessary and I don’t feel that I am being presented with a dramatic back story to make up for deficiencies in the main tale.
I promised myself at the beginning of the year that I wasn’t going to add any more crime authors to the list of those whose works had to be read as soon as they were available. Claire McGowan has made me break that resolve. She already writes well, but I think that eventually she is going to write very well indeed and if you enjoy crime fiction I urge you to get into this series right from the beginning.
With thanks to Headline who made this book available for review.