The Dead Ground

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The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan, book reviewOne of the most memorable review books that I was sent last year was Claire McGowan’s novel The Lost, a book that stood out amongst other crime fiction I read both for its distinctive setting (post-Troubles Northern Ireland) and unusual perspective (missing persons). Having enjoyed it, I finished my review by saying that I looked forward to the inevitable second outing of the story’s protagonist, psychologist Paula Maguire. This return has come pleasingly soon, with The Dead Ground scheduled for general release in April – the lovely people at Headline, however, have sent me an advanced copy that I demolished this weekend with relish.

We return to Paula’s life shortly before Christmas, with snow thick on the ground and the repercussions of her previous case hanging heavily over her head. Just a few short weeks have passed since the end of The Lost, and Paula’s secondment to the Missing Persons Response Unit (MPRU) based in her hometown of Ballyterrin is continuing apace, with no sign of her planned return to her previous life in London on the horizon. Situated just miles from the border with Ireland (“the South”), the unit is tasked with coordinating cross-border work to find the missing, both those unsolved cases from the difficult past and ones that freshly appear on their radar. As a psychologist with expertise in such matters, Paula works with a carefully constructed group of Northern and Southern police designed to diffuse the politically charged nature of many of their enquiries.

This time, the missing person is a new born boy, taken from his parents in the local hospital by a woman posing as a nurse. With just the vague description given by the exhausted and shocked father to go on, the case seems to draw a blank – until a local faith healer claims to have a vision of the child in the nativity crib of the local cathedral, and is proven uncannily accurate. The child is unharmed, but that he has been returned at all is highly unusual in such cases. But no sooner has Paula started to wonder about it, than reports of a missing three month old girl arrive in the unit, along with news that a local pro-choice doctor has disappeared on her way to work. That there are suddenly so many crimes involving babies seems to be no coincidence, but how are they linked and can the MPRU find the culprit before any more babies are abducted?

As The Lost explored the theme of the Disappeared in Northern Ireland, so The Dead Ground unpicks Irish attitudes to babies in all their form: unmarried mothers, large families, welcome and unwelcome pregnancies, and in particular, abortion. Once again the sense of place is rich and the cultural details absorbing, with explanation provided in such a way that it fills in the blanks for those of us unfamiliar with the setting without letting the reader feel they are being patronised by McGowan. I feel I know more about Northern Ireland from reading these books than from any number of news reports and documentaries seen over the years.

I enjoyed The Dead Ground perhaps even more than the first Paula Maguire story; the writing is compelling, the story powerful and the characters develop well over time. The ending was perhaps a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but such is the way with thrillers and a bit of silliness in the dénouement is worth tolerating for the previous 95% of the novel which was highly readable. The book ended with some interesting questions for Paula to resolve, so I do hope that there won’t be a long wait until we hear more from her.

Highly recommended.

The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan
Published by Headline, April 2014
With thanks to the publishers for providing me with this review copy.

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Dead Ground, The
by Claire McGowan

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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