In 1997 I was 14 years old and in the midst of a crime (reading) spree. That Christmas I’d used my time off school to stay up every night reading Patricia Cornwell books at a rate of one a day and nearly fell off my chair when I found out about a book called Scalpel by Paul Carson, a thriller written by an Irish writer and set in Dublin. Set in Dublin! Like, in the country where I was from. And with An Gardaí, the Irish police force. How weird was that? Considering I knew far more at the time about the Robbery-Homicide Division of the LAPD and the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI than I did about what went on at my local garda station, it was quite the novelty.
(If you live in the United States or England, you can’t understand what I’m talking about. But trust me, reading about the Gardaí in a proper crime novel was very exciting indeed.)
Fast forward to today and there are plenty of crime thrillers set in Dublin, not least of all because Dublin has become – unfortunately – a great place in which to set a crime thriller. Criminal gangs rule the inner city streets, the drugs they bring in devastate communities and the journalists investigate at their own risk. (Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin was murdered in 1996 by the criminals she’d written about.)
One of the latest of these thrillers is If I Never See You Again by Niamh O’Connor, which I received as part of the Great Transworld Crime Caper.
“On the streets of Dublin, one woman tracks a terrifying killer. Meet Jo Birmingham – single mum, streetwise, and spiky as hell. Recently promoted, she is one of the few female detective inspectors on the Dublin police force. But with a failed marriage behind her and two young sons at home, trying to strike the right work-life balance has run her ragged. When Jo identifies the missing link in a chain of brutal killings, she comes under fierce scrutiny from her male colleagues, especially her boss and ex-husband Dan Mason. But as the body count rises, so do the body parts. As fear stalks the city, it soon becomes obvious that a serial killer is at large. And so Jo embarks on a terrifying psychological journey to find out who the killer is, and how he is choosing his victims. Soon she is involved in a deadly game in which the hiller is always one step ahead. Because he knows all the rules…”
Me and this book didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. In the first chapter the reader is intentionally misled as to what’s going on and I’ve never been a fan of this technique in books. (I don’t think it’s very fair – for want of a better word – as the reader can only ‘see’ what the author is telling them, unlike in movies or on TV, where this fake-out technique can work well.) However by the time I got to the second chapter, I had this misstep completely forgotten; Jo Birmingham had kicked it right out of my mind.
Birmingham is one of the most likeable female leads I’ve come across in crime fiction. She’s trying to do it all: be a mother to her two children, deal with her ex-husband, assert herself in a boys’ club, fight for victims’ rights and, oh yeah, find the serial killer that is stalking Dublin’s streets. She is tough but not hardened, sensitive but not weak, and has us rooting for her from the word go. Her struggle for balance, messy car and nicotine patch problem really give this novel a sense of realism and would be enough, on its own, to keep us turning the pages.
But there’s plenty more. O’Connor is the true crime editor of the Sunday World and her insider knowledge of the darkest Dublin streets is what elevates If I Never See You Again above its peers. (Although I really hope she was making up the bit about the City Morgue being housed in ‘temporary’ Portacabins for the last ten years. And I don’t think I want to know if she was or not…) But thankfully there’s none of what I like to call ‘Scarpetta Effect’ – dumping huge chunks of tech info into the book just because the author knows it. Instead, O’Connor is in command of her material, telling us through minor details, anecdotes and vivid description that she knows her stuff.
All in all, I thought this was a strong debut. The plot could have benefited from a bit more complexity, but there were enough twists and turns at the end to satisfy. (And maybe I’ve just been reading too much Jo Nesbo lately, whose plots are as twisty as, well, Twister.) I really look forward to hearing more from Niamh O’Connor – and Jo Birmingham – in the future.
And you know what? The novelty of reading thrillers set in my own country never wears off!