Review: Two twisting and tense Celtic crime novels set in Wales and Ireland

Darkest Truth by Catherine Kirwan and Remember No More by Jan Newton

Jon Gower

Introducing a new heroine into the world of crime fiction is a tricky business, not least because there are already so many of them, all jockeying for attention, all with their public flaws and personal burdens. The dysfunctional DS Charlie Zailer in Sophie Hannah’s novels. Tess Gerritsen’s creation Jane Rizzoli, a brash outsider. And, of course, there’s the nosy amateur sleuth Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s enduringly popular series of books.

But first-time crime fictioneer Jan Newton sends DS Julie Kite out into this fiercely competitive world with aplomb, mainly by calibrating the quotidian strains and tensions in Julie’s life so that they’re perfectly believable. She’s moving patch for one thing, swapping the city streets of Manchester for the sheepfolds of mid-Wales. Then there’s her philandering partner, Adam, down to his last excuse and final chance to save the relationship.

So a quiet working life in the countryside sounds pretty much a relaxation for all concerned. Until day one on the job, when there’s a suspicious death, that of a local solicitor Gareth Watkins, which is soon confirmed as murder.

The strapline on the cover of the book runs ‘Bad blood runs in families’ and Newton dutifully sketches out Watkins’ extended family, which has enough bad blood coursing through its veins to match an Albanian clan feud. Then to add to Kite’s problems there’s the early release of a murderer, Stephen Collins, seemingly returning to Powys, to the scene of his dark crime to dole out Biblical retribution.

This debut novel is one of those single-sitting crime books, tautly plotted, teasing the reader onwards, red-herrings spooled out at just the right time, everything believable. Newton says she believes that a sense of place is as important as plot and character and the book amply demonstrates this belief. The landscape around places such as the Epynt, Llanwrtyd and Builth is painted deftly in little dabs of prose…’The road snaked across the bleached moorland, a dark grey slash slicing the hill in two.’

We see ‘rust coloured boulders and wispy grasses’ and ‘great swathes of moorland and square stands of dark green pine trees.’ And, this being sheep country, there are ‘fields full of ewes and lambs like little white seed pearls on pale green velvet.’ This pointilliste approach to landscape really works, reminding us all the time where we are.

One of the clever touches in the book is the introduction of some old, local history which connects the emptiness of mid-Wales with the evils of Nazi-controlled Europe. It adds depth and complexity to a story which already has enough twists and turns to rival the A 483 between Llanelwedd and Llandrindod Wells.

On the cover of the book, it proclaims ‘Remember No More’ to be  ‘A DS Kite Mystery’ suggesting it might be the start of a series. Let’s hope so, and that someone’s already looking at the film rights.

Thriller

If the death of a solicitor lies at the heart of Jan Newton’s debut book so too does one figure in Catherine Kirwan’s ‘Darker Truth’ in which Cork solicitor Finn Fitzpatrick accepts a new client, being a grieving father still deep in mourning after his teenage daughter drowns herself.

It soon transpires that the cause of her suicide lies in a relationship she had with a film director with a penchant for young girls and a ruthless, systematic and pathological way of grooming them. In that it’s an incredibly timely exploration of predatory criminals, both capturing and examining the #MeToo moment and movement.

One of the real joys of this book is the brimming detail of Finn’s life, down to the small domestic ones which can bring a character pulsingly alive. So we know the clothes she wears, even down to those she wears when putting out the bins, where she buys her coffee and what car she drives – even though that fact becomes slightly academic after an arsonist torches her car.

But beyond that degree of detail is the deep sense of her familiarity with the city in which Finn lives. Just as Ian Rankin took Edinburgh as the backdrop for the Rebus novels or James Lee Burke the bayous of Louisiana, Kirwan veritably claims Cork as her own, depicting with A-Z street atlas accuracy a city under constant attack from the artillery of Atlantic rain. You could probably use the novel as a guide to navigating Cork, and get a coffee as you go:

I swung past the grand cast-iron gates, and into the English Market, busy already, though it was not yet ten, with the usual weekend foodie crowd stocking up on provisions for their Saturday night dinner parties. Taking a left at the fountain, I passed the wooden steps to the Farmgate restaurant on the balcony, went through the arch, and got an Americano with milk from Mary Rose.

In terms of local geography, this debut novel is grounded in authenticity and it’s little wonder that the book has been chosen for Cork’s ‘One City, One Book’ initiative, which encourages as many of the city’s denizens as possible to read, share and discuss a single title.

It’s hard to concertina the plot of ‘Darker Truth’ into a few lines without giving away some of the many satisfying turns and twists but suffice it to say that there are some real switchbacks and hairpin bends along the way. There’s also the maybe burgeoning relationship between Finn and her personal trainer and the constant but building pressure heaped on her, facing the loss of her job and impending penury as she pours her own money into the investigation.

Things get even worse when the very people she’s investigating put the frighteners on her, even in her own home. This sense of a pressure cooker poised to become domestic bomb helps heighten the tension of this already taut thriller, as a perhaps unlikely heroine is forced to find some inner steel.

A tale of powerful men who believe themselves to be above the law being taken down has its obvious satisfactions. In terms of timeliness, it is bang on the moment and thus, despite its dark moral shadows, an unexpectedly redemptive read.

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Sue Gurman

Will check out these books, they sound interesting but have you read the crime thriller trilogy by Dave Lewis? The Pontypridd author’s work, starting with Ctrl-Alt-Delete is based in Cardiff and the valleys while the sequel is set in Kenya in East Africa before returning to Wales in the third and final instalment. I also heard recently that a big London film company is looking at optioning the books to make a blockbuster movie or Netflix series. One thing is certain, Wales is a great place for writers at the moment 🙂