Judith Cutler is the author of many short stories and some thirty novels. Her most recent is Ring of Guilt (Severn House) the latest in the series featuring antique dealers Griff Tripp and Lina Townend. Check out the other novels on www.judithcutler.com
History and geography are always deeply intertwined, never more than in Ireland, the setting for Claire McGowan’s history driven third novel, which features Dr Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist working with Ballyterrin’s Missing Persons Response Unit, which deals with the missing from the days of the Troubles and also present day cases.
It’s hard for Maguire, pregnant and throwing up not just in the morning, to concentrate on any cases, but she finds the new one, involving a missing baby, especially hard. Thirty and unmarried, with two possible men as putative fathers, she’s not perhaps in the best position to continue with her pregnancy. Abortion, however, is hardly encouraged in any part of Ireland, north or south of the border, and Maguire, needing impartial advice, makes an appointment to meet a doctor more liberal-minded than most over there. But her action puts her life in danger.
Meanwhile, the tally of missing babies has started to rise, the official enquiry being run by one of Maguire’s lovers, whose wife works in the maternity unit where Maguire would receive obstetric care, and the unofficial one by a journalist who could also be the father. Serial kidnap is bad enough, but soon the perpetrator is executing the mothers in ritualistic settings. All this is set against the backdrop of Irish weather at its coldest and wettest, in a Hardy-esque use of pathetic fallacy. Maguire sets personal comfort and safety aside (and endangers her foetus), to work alongside her police colleagues (surely not!), occasionally taking breath-taking risks.
It becomes apparent that the case has its roots in the history of the struggling province and of Maguire’s own family: her father is a retired policeman (to whom Maguire inexplicably passes evidence at one point) and her mother one of the disappeared. The novel abounds with sinister but credible characters.
Make no mistake, this is a pacy, well-written and engaging thriller – a real page-turner. And McGowan is brave to tackle such a tendentious topic, bound to inflame religious passions on all sides. If I have one small gripe, I didn’t find Maguire’s attitude to her pregnancy, or some of its symptoms, entirely convincing, and I suspect the happy-families deal at the end might be a bit of a cop-out. Why not read it for yourself and make up your own mind? That apart, The Dead Ground is a cracking read.