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Crime round-up: From Dennis Lehane’s ‘tough Irish broad’ to Margot Douhaiy’s New Orleans nun

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane; Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater; The Wintering Place by Kevin McCarthy; Cast a Cold Eye by Robbie Morrison; and The Lock-Up by John Banville

There wasn’t much by way of peace, love and understanding in the working-class enclaves of Boston in the 1970s. Dennis Lehane’s Small Mercies (Abacus, £20) opens in 1974 against a backdrop of the federal desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, with South Boston – ‘Southie’ – mobilising itself against an influx of black students being bussed into the district.

Mary Pat Fennessy is a self-confessed “tough Irish broad” who wishes everyone could just stick to their own side of the tracks, although Mary Pat’s concerns swiftly pivot from the political to the personal when her 17-year-old daughter, Jules, fails to come home one night. You don’t go to the cops in Southie, so Mary Pat appeals to Marty Butler’s crew to help her find Jules – only to discover that Marty Butler, the gangster who rules Southie as if it were his personal fiefdom, has a very good reason to hope Jules is never found.

Lehane’s latest is a multifaceted affair, delivering an unsentimental account of a city at war with itself and a nuanced investigation of racism, class and cultural identity. Fundamentally, however, it’s a powerful story of a woman who has been stripped of everything she holds dear and who, with nothing left to lose, has nothing left to fear: “Bobby is struck by the notion that something both irretrievably broken and wholly unbreakable lives at the core of this woman.” Mary Pat Fennessy might be Dennis Lehane’s single greatest creation; Small Mercies is easily his best novel since 2008′s The Given Day.

The politics of the true crime genre – who gets to write it, and how and at whose expense – is at the heart of Alice Slater’s Death of a Bookseller (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99), which revolves around two employees working at the Walthamstow branch of the bookstore chain Spines. Laura’s mother was murdered by the serial killer dubbed “the Stow Strangler” and Laura now writes “found poetry” in which the blood and gore are removed from true crime accounts of violence against women; Roach is a true crime obsessive with ambitions to add her own book to the genre’s canon.


But as Roach worms her way into Laura’s life, mining her tragedy for details, the reader soon begins to wonder if Roach is an aspiring author or killer. Patricia Highsmith casts a long shadow across Slater’s debut (every chapter begins with a snail sliming its way across the bottom of the page) and fans of the psychological thriller get plenty to chew on in an irony-drenched crime novel that sets two women on a potentially lethal collision course while simultaneously asking hard questions about the exploitative nature of true crime writing.

Kevin McCarthy’s The Wintering Place (WW Norton, £14.99) is a sequel to his superb Wolves of Eden (2018), a novel set in the Dakota Territory in 1866 and featuring the immigrant Irish brothers, Tom and Michael O’Driscoll, cavalrymen in the US Army and veterans of the civil war. The Wintering Place opens directly after the events of that novel, with Tom and Michael, along with Sara, “the ½ Indian girl of a Frenchie Canuck father” pregnant with Tom’s child, hiding out at a remote cave on a bend of a frozen river.

Wounded, starving and desperate, the brothers fear the worst when the soft-handed trappers Dillard and Robinson wander into their camp seeking shelter from the worst of the driving snows ... Told in alternating chapters of Michael’s semi-literate, first-person diary and Tom’s third-person perspective, The Wintering Place is a powerful account of survival at all costs in a world where might is right and which, in its descriptions of the old frontier and the quality of man and woman who must hack a semblance of life from its unforgiving wilderness, bears comparison with Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man.

Opening in Glasgow in 1935, Robbie Morrison’s Cast a Cold Eye (Macmillan, £16.99) is set against a backdrop of “infamous razor-gangs, who had turned large sections of the city into war zones, battle lines drawn along sectarian grounds.” Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn – a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant police force – is charged with keeping the peace, a difficult job that gets a lot tougher when an Irish mob arrives in Glasgow and ex-British Army soldiers are discovered executed with a bullet to the back of the head.

Is the lethal crime wave a legacy of the Irish War of Independence? Or is there a more prosaic reason, one connected to the vast amounts of money swirling around the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstakes? Morrison’s debut, Edge of the Grave (2021), won the Bloody Scotland Crime Debut of the Year and Cast a Cold Eye delivers handsomely on that promise, a gritty Great Depression novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of a place and time in which the Glasgow Police Force is the self-proclaimed biggest gang in the city.

I had the makings of a damn good investigator: equal parts methodical focus and capriciousness with the patience of a hunter and an appetite for femmes fatales

—  Sister Holiday

Sister Holiday Walsh is that rarest of birds, a nun in crime fiction. Margot Douhaiy’s debut Scorched Grace (Pushkin Vertigo, £9.99) (€11.39) opens with an arson attack on a New Orleans private Catholic school that takes the life of one of Sister Holiday’s friends. Something of a fallen angel before she joined the Sisters of the Sublime Blood, the tattooed Sister Holiday is determined to investigate: “I had the makings of a damn good investigator: equal parts methodical focus and capriciousness with the patience of a hunter and an appetite for femmes fatales.” It’s a neat set-up, but Sister Holiday is relentless in her self-mythologising, constantly reminding us of her qualifications as a “gumshoe” and a “lone wolf” and restating her determination to “find some clues” to “crack this case wide open”. It’s a fun, irreverent read, but Scorched Grace is too dazzled by the ideal of the amateur sleuth to fully deliver on its potential.

John Banville’s The Lock-Up (Faber, £12.99) is set in 1950s Dublin and features the Protestant police detective St John Strafford and the State coroner Quirke, a mutually antagonistic pair who have previously aided and abetted one another in the novels Snow (2020) and April in Spain (2021). Still in mourning after the devastating events that concluded the previous novel, Quirke spots a tiny detail in a crime scene that suggests the young Jewish woman, Rosa Jacobs, was murdered.

And so Quirke and Strafford lumber into action, pulling threads that lead them to Wolfgang von Kessler, a German aristocrat breeding horses in Co Wicklow. “That was how Quirke would have to be now,” the mock-heroic Quirke informs himself, “the knight who has been in the wars and survived and who bestrides his horse and walks it calmly through a wintry world, with the sacked castle left far behind and grotesques crowding around him.”

Those grotesques include Nazis, anti-Semites and the well-got sleeveens who scurry around doing the church’s bidding as Strafford and Quirke close in on the truth behind Jacobs’s death one stumbling step at a time. They’re not an especially dynamic duo, Strafford and Quirke, but they certainly feel authentic to their time and place as they poke into the dark corners of a second-rate city to set the rats of prejudice and misogyny scattering.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His current novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press).

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Declan Burke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic