Caution over thriller's title worth reading

The Ruin. Dervla McTiernan. Harper Collins. 

Dervla McTiernan warns us that the title of this criminal thriller can be interpreted in several ways. In English it means simply collapse, wreck, damaged state, while in Irish (with an accent over the "u") it implies something hidden, a mystery or secret, and is also used as a term of endearment.

We are wise to heed her caution, as any of the above can be found in both the setting and the characters McTiernan presents. A house in disrepair symbolises the lives of the three people living there. The culture in the police force within which much of the action takes place is indeed in a profoundly damaged and uncertain state.

As a young police officer Cormac Reilly is sent to a call from a house that looks abandoned. Inside is a girl, her younger brother and, upstairs, their dead mother. Maude has been with her mother all day after calling police and has decided on the very best course of action. She has packed small bags for each of them and is quite determined on her plans being followed. Cormac is appalled at the level of Jack's bruising and when Maude asks to go to the toilet, she vanishes. With no family of note, she is simply declared a runaway and forgotten. Her mother's death is given cursory investigation and left as an unsolved case, a possible overdose.

Two decades later it is St Patrick's Day in Galway. The parallel stories of Aisling, a young aspiring surgeon and Cormac, now an experienced cop who has taken a demotion for his partner's sake, unfold.

Alternate chapters give insights into their thoughts, activities and needs. Aisling, forever convinced she must work harder and longer than anyone else to succeed and gain her surgical internship, discovers she is pregnant. Serious conflicting thoughts emerge - those of her own career desires, those of loyalty to her partner Jack and those of the dominant religious culture in which she has been raised. After telling Jack of the pregnancy he goes out, and she is later woken by the police with tragic news.

Cormac is finding his assignment to cold cases frustrating, sorting out who to trust in the station. Working in drug offending and domestic violence in a small workforce, the abrasions of ambition and personal challenges contribute to a pervasive atmosphere of mistrust and Cormac is unwilling to ask anyone for advice or information. His partner Emma works long hours and their relationship is suffering.

The parallel lives become intertwined as Jack's funeral, after an assumed suicide, challenges religious custom. Cormac is intrigued by a woman who stands back - she looks vaguely familiar. Maude is convinced her brother's death is not a suicide and has footage to prove it. The police dismiss her concerns and the tempo builds.

Cormac is assigned to the cold case of Maude's mother and other police, after much intervention by Aisling and Maude, look at Jack's death. Aisling, Maude and Cormac find their lives becoming increasingly intertwined.

This is a piece of fiction that carries the reader. It has crisp characterisation, evocative descriptions of context and subtle variations in pace and clues. McTiernan has given us a character in Cormac Reilly who is worthy of following and the good news is that a 2019 novel is planned.

 - Willie Campbell is a Dunedin educator

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