A Policeman in Galway
By Miriam R. Kramer
As Americans, many of us have Irish heritage that we celebrate with trips overseas to ancestral villages, atmospheric Guinness-soaked pubs, lonely cliffside views of crashing seas, and all the misty green landscape we can soak in. If Ireland is indeed a land of stories, I almost always want to hear them. This goes doubly true in the case of storytellers such as Dervla McTiernan, an author of police procedurals who goes beyond that cliched tale-telling structure to achieve something more. Trained as a lawyer, McTiernan has written a detailed series starring Detective Cormac Reilly, who solves crimes in such books as The Ruin, the Scholar, The Good Turn, and the recent prequel novella, The Roommate.
In The Ruin, Detective Inspector (DI) Cormac Reilly is a garda, a detective of twenty years who has transferred from Dublin to Galway, where he originally started his career as a young policeman. He has taken a step back in his career to accommodate his live-in girlfriend, Emma, a brilliant and accomplished scientist who found a job in a renowned Galway laboratory.
Mistrusted by his station and assigned to cold cases, he oddly finds a current case connected to one he encountered in Galway as a brand-new garda. Twenty years ago Reilly found Hilaria Blake, a heroin addict, dead in a house with her ignored and abused children, fifteen-year-old Maude and five-year-old Jack. After making sure Jack goes to the hospital, Maude disappears, and Jack goes into foster care. Reilly has no way to investigate it further.
Twenty years later, DI Reilly finds out that Jack, now a young man, has committed suicide for no apparent reason. Reilly meets his fiancé, Aisling Ryan, a doctor-in-training, to find out why. Under pressure, Aisling eventually investigates circumstances surrounding Jack’s suicide that invite suspicion. Yet the police department does not want to investigate until a figure from Jack’s past emerges, actively trying to prove that Jack did not kill himself.
Cormac Reilly emerges in this first mystery as a dogged, thoughtful investigator, juggling the difficulties and police politics in his career while trying to do good work. He fights to bring closure to a case that has haunted him, eventually floating to the surface of his conscious like a body that refuses to remain submerged. The Ruin accurately represents him and this series. You can feel the Galway rain falling, the cynicism and darkness of the police factionalism, and realize Reilly’s innate decency as he struggles to solve this terrible puzzle.
In The Scholar, Emma, his beautiful scientist girlfriend, calls him because she has found a blond woman’s body near her laboratory. Although the figure has been rendered almost unrecognizable, Reilly finds an ID for Carline Darcy in the woman’s pocket. She is the granddaughter of the owner of Darcy Therapeutics, Emma’s employer. In an effort to protect Emma, Reilly goes against his own instincts and professional standards to take on a case despite his personal connection to it.
As the case progresses, Reilly finds himself unraveling a scenario much more complicated than he expected, literally and emotionally. Emma herself comes in for doubt and scrutiny, adding duress to a relationship he cherishes. His own flaws come under her microscope, pun intended, and he finds himself dissecting his own romantic relationship while researching the dead granddaughter of Emma’s rich and secretive boss.
The Good Turn is the most recent full novel of the Reilly series. In this tale, we see not only DI Reilly’s process, but also that of young Garda Peter Fisher, a member of his team. Since his superiors are still out for his blood, Cormac has few resources with which to follow up the kidnapping of a young child as his department focuses a potential drug bust that would get them positive publicity and political power. He runs into opposition from above at every turn.
A police screw-up results in a tragedy, making Reilly and Fisher unwilling scapegoats for their department. With Reilly suspended, Fisher is sent back to a tiny country police station in the town he escaped—the town where his estranged policeman father works. There he solves a separate mystery. In this way he finds an explanation for the reasons why his father was able to pull strings for him with higher-ups in Dublin. All threads of this story of corruption begin to come together as the two policemen weave them together from different angles. Reilly also takes some necessary time to come to terms with his adored Emma, and decide whether they can change enough to stay together.
An enjoyable addition to the Cormac Reilly series is a short prequel, The Roommate, about a teacher whose pleasant but distant roommate turns up dead in the foyer of her apartment building. Suspicion falls upon her from her school, threatening her job teaching small children. Investigating is the newly minted policeman Cormac Reilly. The story focuses on roommates: what they do and do not know about one another, and how we often take people into our lives on trust rather than the suspicion we see as paranoia. It too is enjoyable. I liked it enough that I wished McTiernan could have turned it into a novel rather than a novella.
If I could compare McTiernan’s work here to any other authors focusing on the same subject matter, I would bring up one of my favorite current Irish authors, Tana French, and American author Michael Connelly. McTiernan does not write with the feverish, haunting prose of French’s earlier Dublin Murder Squad mysteries, but she possesses a subdued thoughtfulness and attention to psychological detail reminiscent of French at her finest. Cormac Reilly, like Michael Connelly’s hero Harry Bosch, is a flawed man intent on solving both current and cold cases. He too is sometimes devoted to police work at the expense of his personal life, a life that involves women put on a pedestal. I would actually pick McTiernan’s work over Connelly’s, however, because of her subtlety and ability to infuse a touch of melancholy in her work.
If you like detective series that exceed the limits of the genre, please pick up McTiernan’s introspective and suspenseful novels. I love the Ireland of blarney—beguiling and misleading talk—much more than the Blarney Stone tourist trap image that publicizes it. What can be more beguiling and misleading than a well-written thriller? I appreciate the seanchaí or scéalaí, the renowned storyteller who stands in front of a peat fire as rain falls outside, spinning tales in front of villagers in a cozy room. Since I do not live in this mythologized Ireland, I will gladly take McTiernan’s DI Cormac Reilly series instead.