“Cormac looked down at the corpse. Her arms and legs were skeletal, her hair lank and greasy. The top sheet was grubby and thin and through it he could see the outline of her body. There was a dark stain at the apex of her legs where death had caused her bowls to open. The smell of sour body odour and faeces was thick despite the frigid air.”
Mayo 1993, rookie guard Cormac Reilly calls to a rundown Georgian house in the middle of nowhere. Hilaria Blake’s body lies in a bedroom upstairs, while her two children, fifteen-year-old Maude and five-year-old Jack, wait downstairs for someone to come. This use of a historical crime to start a crime novel is not new, and it works with great effect in The Rúin, a debut novel by Irish author Dervla McTiernan.
Twenty years later and Cormac is working in Mill St Garda Station, Galway. He’s moved from his high-flying job in Dublin to support his wife’s career. He realises that he’s not welcome, there are rumours about why he left the special detective unit and snide comments are the order of the day. His only friend is Danny who appears to have his own issues. Cormac is working cold cases when the Blake case comes back to haunt him. He wonders why he isn’t asked to investigate Jack Blake’s suicide, is there more to it and who can he trust?
Jack Blake has overcome his mother’s death and now leads an idyllic life with his partner Aisling. When Jack is found dead, apparently by suicide, Aisling struggles to understand why. Jack’s sister, Maude, reappears and is adamant that Jack would never kill himself. The Gardaí don’t want to know, and Maude and Aisling must work together to find out what really happened to Jack.
The Rúin is more than a crime novel; it also depicts a darker side of Irish history we Irish want to forget and a Garda culture that is very slow to change. It is the story of a sister who tries to do her best for her brother, even in death.
Dervla McTiernan, a lawyer living in Galway, moved to Australia after the collapse of the Irish economy. This background lends authenticity to the book. I like her use of descriptions to give context as well as describing things. She describes a garda car as having “a faint but persistent smell of vomit from the back seat. Even its radio was in bits, its wires hanging loose, waiting for a fix”. This tells us not just about the car but also the working conditions of the Gardaí in 1993. (I’m not sure they’ve changed that much since.)
The book is fast-paced, set over a period just shy of a month. As a character, Cormac is ordinary, no major flaws except perhaps to trust people too much. And that’s okay because who wouldn’t love a character that gives up his job to support his wife’s career?
The Rúin (an Irish word meaning secrets) takes the reader back to the dark days of rural Ireland, the neglect and abuse of children, and an unwillingness by the authorities to take action. The Blake case has all the hallmarks of the “classic Irish Trilogy” of alcohol abuse; apathetic social workers and the Holy Catholic Church. Keeping the religious on-side was more important than the welfare of children or doing what was right. This setting is weaved naturally throughout the book using memories; case notes and interviews.
In her depiction of a rural garda station and its occupants, she also throws us into a flawed Garda culture, where people close ranks, engage in cover-ups, and no-one is held accountable. The person who highlights the issue is the one who loses. Even Cormac comes to recognise this, thinking “going public would mean losing his job, too much he would have to have had to leave undone.” This culture still exists and is at the heart of what is happening in Ireland with the Disclosures Tribunal into the Gardaí, with trust in the Guards at an all-time low, and mistakes still being made by the people entrusted with child protection.
The book is set in 2013 but uses a setting in google maps which was not invented or used until 2015. I like the fact the author confesses to doing this. I wasn’t aware of this particular setting and will be checking it out.
Tana French and Jo Spain used historical crimes to start their debut novels, and I think The Rúin holds its ground in their company.
Dervla McTiernan was inspired to finish this book after being shortlisted for the Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards. It is a sign of how good this book is that there was a six-way auction by Australian publishers for the book’s rights and it will be published in Canada, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, UK, and the US. Thankfully, Dervla McTiernan is still around to bring us book 2 in the series, after having a brain tumour removed. She has since recovered.
“Who will protect you when the authorities can’t or won’t” is one of the taglines for this book. I think it encapsulates how you will feel at the end of the book, feeding into a mistrust of those in authorities while giving hope that those who care will continue to advocate.
(c) Teresa Hanley
Teresa Hanley is a writer who has given up her secure job to do a Masters in Writing, Editing and Publishing in the University of Queensland, Brisbane. She writes a blog about her experiences.