The Silent Dead | Claire McGowan | 2015 | Headline | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
On 1 May 2006 the Troubles returned to a small village outside Ballyterrin, Northern Ireland, when a bomb tore through buildings and human beings, killing sixteen people, maiming others and destroying the lives of so many more. Five years on and the trial against the Mayday Five, the four men and one woman accused of the atrocity, has recently collapsed amid the wreckage of circumstantial and poorly-gathered evidence. As the day of commemoration nears, the police find one of the Mayday Five dead, hanging, and learn that the other four suspects are missing, each snatched on the same day. It’s not long before a second member of the gang turns up, murdered. The race is on to find the other missing suspects before time runs out for them, too, but this is not an easy case. As the police spend time questioning the survivors and relatives of those murdered by the bomb, the moral question arises of whether it really matters if these five people are eradicated from the Earth.
Paula Maguire is the forensic psychologist assigned to the case by the police. All well and good except at seven months’ pregnant she’s probably not best suited to looking at bodies in the local bog. And to say that there’s ‘history’ with her boss is the biggest understatement of the year. But Paula is determined to get to the bottom of the case, growing close to many of the bomb’s survivors and victims’ relatives. Paula, like so many others, has reason to mourn the Troubles in Northern Ireland for very personal reasons. With the birth of her baby approaching ever closer, Paula is increasingly distracted by thoughts of family.
The Silent Dead is a disturbing, powerful read that at times is almost overwhelming in its portrayal of sadness and frustration. Perhaps reading it over the last weekend while upset over events in Paris wasn’t the time to do it – I think it troubled me all the more. But I remember the Troubles very well, at times too well, and it does no harm at all to be reminded of what it was like. Although the bomb in this novel explodes several years after peace was declared, it’s a strong reminder of Omagh and the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing. Painful memories. And Claire McGowan takes care to show that the fallout from such atrocities takes years to recover from, if ever. It’s impossible to read this novel without undergoing such a range of emotions and feelings, especially in those sections which remember the people that simply disappeared without trace.
The light relief, or just the distraction, comes from Paula and her complicated private life. It’s clear that she’s in no fit state to be so heavily involved in this case and she tests the patience of her police colleagues. But she cannot let it go. There’s a strong sense that the arrival of the baby is going to be accompanied by an enormous shock to Paula’s system. She will have to put another human being first, ahead of her endless curiosity and drive for answers and justice. But she’s the perfect person for people on all sides to talk to and she works wonders. I did get a little irritated by the constant reminders that Paula’s heavily pregnant, as if we could forget it for an instant, but it does us good to be taken out of the other world into which Paula and her colleagues must descend.
I haven’t read any of the other books in this series (there are another two) and I suspect that my appreciation for Paula’s predicament would have been increased if I knew more about her history. There is so much tension here between characters and much of it remained a mystery to me. But, having said that, I was gripped by The Silent Dead and was fully immersed in the world created by Claire McGowan’s fine storytelling. It’s painful at times but it’s also rewarding, hugely difficult to put down, and left me with a great deal on my mind to think about. The themes of innocence and guilt overshadow the whole novel and are dealt with in such a memorable and effective way. I now have another author to follow and read and for that I’m grateful.