Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 2; 6 December 2020

Dervla McTiernan’s female characters

The Rúin and The Scholar

In the last decade or so, we’ve seen the emergence of a group of Irish crime fiction writers, mainly women. I’m thinking of writers like Jane Casey, Louise Phillips, Jo Spain and Andrea Carter. Several of these women write series with recurring characters and many of the recurring characters are police detectives or otherwise involved in criminal investigation (Louise Phillips’s forensic psychologist, Andrea Carter’s country solicitor). In many cases, the main series character is, like the author, a woman: for example, Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan, as well as Phillips’s psychologist (Kate Pearson) and Carter’s solicitor (Ben O’Keeffe).

I’ve alluded before to difficulty an author has in maintaining a series without either telling the same story over and over again or subjecting her central character to life-changing trauma every 12 to 18 months. In this issue of the newsletter, I’d like to look at the approach adopted by Dervla McTiernan in her first two books, The Rúin and The Scholar. The detective at the centre of both books is Galway-based Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly.

DS Reilly is a bit of a paragon: patient, level-headed, rational, conscientious and self-disciplined. He’s also something of an athlete and (as a female colleague and a number of witnesses note) highly attractive. Having spent over a decade doing an effective and commendable job in Dublin’s Special Detective Unit, he has acquired the skill to navigate Garda politics without developing a tolerance for its petty games. He is, in short, ever so slightly too good to be true.

That’s not a bad thing. Many fictional detectives have such trouble coping with alcoholism or drug dependence, mental health difficulties, spouses at the end of their tether, resentful and uncooperative children, not to mention simple exhaustion, that the real mystery is how they get their jobs done at all. It’s refreshing to read the story of a detective who is not a rule-breaking maverick. And for all his near-perfection, Reilly remains a warmly human and sympathetic character. He’s arguably not an interesting enough protagonist to carry the books on his own. Luckily, his author doesn’t expect him to.

Each of the first two books in this series has a number of women characters who are complex, fascinating, driven and unpredictable. Each also includes more than one woman who is cruel and vicious, particularly towards her own or someone else’s children. One of the series’s major themes is the resilience of children who have been subjected to the cruelty of parents (and others with responsibility for them) of both sexes. The children tend to survive (for a while) and experience love and happiness (for a while) but that is no excuse for the brutality with which they’ve previously been treated.

The Rúin’s Aisling Conroy wants to be a surgeon. She knows that this requires single-mindedness and extremely hard work, and she’s wholeheartedly committed to that. Then, her plans suffer two blows: she learns that she’s pregnant and almost immediately her partner, Jack Blake, is violently killed, in what the police are classifying as suicide. Aisling, in part because she knows what is expected of would-be surgeons, insists on returning to work after the funeral. She has known since the moment she discovered that she was pregnant that she can’t have a baby at 25 while at the same time continuing with her intended career. Now, however, she’s wavering: can she really destroy what she describes as “the last bit of Jack in the world”, even if the only alternative is to give up surgery and switch to another branch of medicine, perhaps become a GP?

Teased by her friend, Mary, about her “superhuman” dedication to her goal, Aisling reveals that her mother had never believed that she was capable of achieving anything:

“At the start of every year she would come to my school to meet the teachers and apologise for me. I’m very sorry about Aisling. I’m afraid she has very little ability, though I’m sure she does her best. She started doing that when I was eight.”

When Aisling excels in her Leaving Certificate, her mother congratulates her but looks puzzled.

“Then that night, after I went to bed, I heard her ask my dad if there could have been some sort of mix up, if maybe they should do the right thing and let the exam board know.” (Chapter 13)

Aisling conducts her own investigation, finding Jack’s missing phone miles away from the scene of his supposed suicide, on a mountain overlooking Lough Mask in County Mayo. This is somewhere Jack had liked to go hiking. The phone stopped working at the point from which Jack may have seen the disposal of the body of a murdered young woman.

At the climactic confrontation between Reilly and Jack’s killer, both of whom are armed, Aisling risks her own life to end the standoff, losing her pregnancy in the process. She had already decided to terminate it, having asked a colleague (and friend) in the UK to send her mifepristone and misoprostol by post.

It was a huge ask. Though abortion was legal in the UK, posting pills to a patient you hadn’t seen was not. (Chapter 20)

In the end, Aisling succeeds in getting a training position in paediatric surgery. Though she is far from being the only interesting or admirable female character in the novel, she seems to me to be the one closest to its centre; rather closer, indeed, than the ostensible male protagonist.

Neither is she is the only character in these two novels to be underestimated, misunderstood or unrecognized by her mother. In The Scholar, one such character is the victim, initially misidentified but eventually named as Della Lambert. She is the victim of a deliberate hit and run, and the discovery of her badly mutilated body is the incident which kicks off the plot.

Della, Reilly eventually learns, was an extraordinarily gifted student who started university (studying biochemistry) when she was only 16, but then dropped out after just one semester. She told a lecturer that she had had no choice because her father’s shop — her family’s only livelihood — had gone out of business and she needed to work. The kind of work she found was highly unusual. She told her younger brother, Paul, to whom she was unusually close, that she worked as a waitress.

In fact, she had come to an arrangement with another student, Carline Darcy, under which she would do Carline’s exams and write her doctoral thesis, in return for a payment of almost half-a-million euro. Ultimately, Della intended to go back to college a few years later and complete her studies in her own name, but her murder put an end to that plan.

From the money she’d received from Carline, Della had been paying her mother some €5,000 a month to support the family. Mrs Lambert knew that Della could hardly be coming by such large sums honestly, but showed no interest in what her daughter was really up to, or in getting to know who she really was. She appeared to have no idea that her older daughter was especially gifted, or that there was anything remarkable in her having started university at 16 and then dropped out halfway through the first year.

The lecturer who told Reilly about Della’s brilliance had been reluctant to say anything too damaging about Carline, granddaughter of the reputedly brilliant (and commercially very successful) scientist who had endowed the university’s laboratory, but he did go so far as to compare the two young women to Carline’s disadvantage.

“I’m just pointing out that Carline Darcy has everything going for her, including the support of her grandfather. Della Lambert had nothing but a brilliant mind, and she’s dead on the street.” (Chapter 28)

One can see why that’s how it looked to him, but there were more similarities between the two young women than he realized. Carline, too, would end up violently murdered. By presenting Della’s work as her own, she was able to persuade the college authorities that she had “the kind of mind that comes along once in a generation”. Her grandfather, John Darcy, the founder of a pharmaceutical giant, was reputed to have that kind of mind, and Carline had wanted to persuade him that she was his true successor. As it turned out, she may already have resembled him more closely than she imagined.

On the sudden death of her father when she was just 12, Carline had inherited his shares in John Darcy’s company. Her grandfather had immediately exercised his option to buy the shares from her at a price of €42 million. Carline was fabulously rich, therefore, but couldn’t buy what she wanted, acceptance into her father’s family. The 12-year-old Carline had told John Darcy that she was afraid of her mother (whom she hardly knew, as her father had fought hard for custody) and didn’t want to live with her, but he had ignored her wishes.

Carline was a perfectly good student. The lecturer told Cormac that “all the kids in that class are very bright. Every kid in there got pretty much all As in their Leaving. But they’re still kids”. So, Carline was smart, though not a once-in-a-generation genius, as Della was. On the other hand, Carline was clever and adept enough to negotiate with Della, reach a deal with her, appropriate her work and remain on good terms with her.

Della was a genius, but she was young (two years younger than Carline and her other classmates) and naive. It was naivety that led her to tip her hand to the killer, resulting in her own death and, not long after, in Carline’s. Carline was bright enough to understand who the killer must be, and what had become of Della’s computer; but not bright enough to recover the computer without putting her own life in danger.

The murderer, who has known John Darcy since they were both students in Galway, pours cold water on the idea that Darcy is an exceptionally brilliant scientist. According to him, John’s true genius has been for the commercialisation of the ideas of others and his reputation as the kind of genius that is found only once in a generation is just part of the company’s branding, no more than useful PR. Is this true? The killer is angry, resentful, humiliated and certainly not above lying. Cormac is not sure whether he can take this assessment of John Darcy at face value. If he can, perhaps the reason that Darcy has been unwilling to accept Carline, to let her into the family, is that he recognizes that there’s already too strong a resemblance between them.

The third book in the Cormac Reilly series, The Good Turn, is available as an audiobook (and presumably in other formats, though I haven’t managed to find them). I’m keen to read it, but I’ll be waiting till I can get it as a mass-market paperback.

There’ll be another issue of the newsletter in two weeks’ time. If you know someone who might enjoy this one, don’t hesitate to forward it. Thanks for reading.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 06-Dec-2020.