One feature that almost all good crime novels share is an ability to dissect the social climate out of which they have been created. This is certainly the case with Claire McGowan’s series featuring forensic psychologist, Paula Maguire and set on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Those of us who are obsessive readers of crime fiction have long been used to immersing ourselves in the social complexities of life in Scotland. However, over the past decade there has been a growing stream of novels dealing with the issues facing the relatively new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) which replaced the politically sensitive RUC in 2001. And, if you set a crime novel in Northern Ireland you have not only to explore the social climate but also political and religious sensitivities. You can’t have one without the other two.
The Silent Dead is the third novel in the series and opens with Paula, seven months pregnant and about to become a single mother, trying to convince her colleagues that she is still well enough to hold her place in the PSNI Missing Persons Unit. Bringing home those who are lost is important to Paula because seventeen years earlier she returned from school to find that her mother had vanished, and an ongoing theme in the series is her search to understand the reasons behind her disappearance. In Northern Ireland in the 1990s when a family member went missing your first thought was not that they had gone of their own volition.
The case that the Unit is currently involved in touches many raw nerves. Five years previously a bomb ripped through the heart of a small local community killing or maiming dozens of innocent individuals and destroying the lives of countless others. Five people have been brought to trial but because of problems with custody of the evidence they have not been convicted. Now those five have themselves gone missing and the question is, who is behind their abduction.
In an afterward McGowan notes:
This book is not intended to represent any specific events during the Troubles, but sadly there are parallels with real life atrocities, most notably the Enniskillen and Omagh bombs
and anyone who had any connection at all with such terrible events cannot fail to draw those parallels. I was in Birmingham city centre on the night of the 21st of November 1974 when 21 people were killed and 182 injured in two co-ordinated pub bombings, so I know something of the fear engendered by such incidents. Then, more than two decades later, one of my students was injured in Omagh. Her best friend died beside her. Over the next three years I watched as piece by piece she tried to rebuild her life. In both cases people have been brought to trial but in neither instance has any real sense of justice been achieved.
And that is what this novel is really concerned with, namely the nature of justice and who decides exactly what counts as justice. When justice as recognised by the law appears to let you down do you have the right to take matters into your own hands, cast yourself as judge and jury and mete out your own punishment? As suspicion begins to fall on the survivors of the bombing and their families whatever sympathy the police may feel for them they have to acknowledge that the line between justice and revenge is all too often crossed when retributive action becomes personal. Recent history in Northern Ireland is bedevilled by instances of personal ‘justice’ and the resulting tit-for-tat retaliation. In this novel McGowan asks how can this be stopped, if indeed there is any hope that it ever can be brought to an end. Her conclusions are not entirely positive but they do ring true.
On a lighter note: You know that you are reading too many crime novels when your first thought on learning of Paula’s difficulties dealing with being pregnant in a work climate where no one knows the identity of the father is that someone really ought to put her in touch with Ruth Galloway (Elly Griffith’s character) for a little mutual support. Note to self: They aren’t real people, Alex!