Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dervla McTiernan's The Ruin

My review of Dervla McTiernan's The Ruin from last weekend's Australian newspaper
A winter’s night in the far west of Ireland in 1993. A trainee Garda officer, Cormac Reilly, is driving through the rain between the bog and the mountains. Something has happened at Dower House, a derelict Georgian mansion in the hamlet of Kilmore.
When Reilly arrives at the property he finds Maude Blake, a near-starving, wide-eyed 15-year-old, and Jack, her bruised and battered five-year-old brother. The girl points upstairs, where Reilly finds the children’s drunken, emaciated mother, Hilaria, with a heroin needle sticking out of her arm.
For Reilly it’s a gothic, distressing scene but the case seems straightforward enough: the Blakes were a dissipated Anglo-Irish family on the decline and Hilaria’s death was clearly only a matter of time. Two things then happen that complicate the story: the medical examiner says that Hilaria had never taken heroin before the fatal overdose and, shortly after this, Maude Blake completely vanishes.
The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan.
The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan.
Twenty years later, in Galway, Jack Blake is engaged to a brilliant young doctor, Aisling, who has just learned that she is pregnant. The day he hears this news he goes out for a walk and does not come back. Reilly, meanwhile, after a high-flying career in the anti-terrorism taskforce, has moved back to Galway town to further his wife’s career as a research scientist.
Reilly is not exactly thrilled to be working in the cold-case basement but when the 20-year-old case of Hilaria Blake is dumped on his desk he wonders if this is more than a ­coincidence.
This is the arresting opening to Dervla McTiernan’s assured debut novel, The Ruin. A lawyer from Galway, McTiernan moved to Western Australia following the global financial crisis of 2008.
As The Ruin progresses, we follow Reilly and Aisling’s dovetailing quest for truth. When Jack’s long-lost sister returns from Australia to find out what happened to her brother, all narrative gears are set in motion.
I like the vibe McTiernan creates of a small-town police headquarters with its dank offices and “slurping foul-smelling pot noodles­” and I like Reilly’s pal, the dodgy Danny McIntyre, who is a copper on the rise. McTiernan joins such contemporary masters­ of the Garda police procedural as Ken Bruen, Brian McGilloway, Anthony Quinn and Arlene Hunt, with a polished and original story that also draws on the hidden secrets storylines of such writers as Edna O’Brien and Maeve Binchy. Her dialogue and milieu are authentic and I found no examples of cop talk catachresis.
The Ruin delves deep into the police troika of sins: corruption, laziness and bigotry. But McTiernan also has something to say about the changes that have taken place in Ireland over the past 20 years.
She writes about the seemingly endless wave of scandals that hit the Catholic Church of Ireland in this period, particularly ones ­involving the abuse of children. As mentioned, McTiernan is a lawyer and a text that is mentioned several times in The Ru in is the Irish constitution, which is not as alarming as it sounds.
Ireland’s original constitution begins: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Eire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ ...”
You get the picture. For 70 years after it won independence, Ireland was a quasi-theocracy with whole areas of civic life devolved to the church. Absolute power corrupts absolutely but no one seemed to notice this until the dam began to break in the mid-1990s.
Into this heady mix McTiernan also has time to skilfully unpack Maude and Aisling’s grief and to give us an acute psychological portrait of Reilly, a policeman who worries that his career might just have peaked.
McTiernan’s writing style is best described as workmanlike. There are few opportunities for wit in this dark story but this is Ireland, so there is still time for the occasional piss-take.
Stephen King teaches young writers that their prose mustn’t become distracting, that what is important about a novel are the characters and the story. This is good advice but perhaps you can take a little too much of the medicine. I don’t see anything wrong with ­allowing your prose to breathe a bit and let some of your personality leak out, even in a police procedural. This goes doubly for a writer from the land of saints, scribes and scholars.
Still, The Ruin is a breezily confident debut and promises a bright future for this new Irish-Australian talent.
Adrian McKinty is the author of the award-winning Sean Duffy crime novels.
The Ruin
By Dervla McTiernan
HarperCollins, 400pp, $32.99