A Savage Hunger | Claire McGowan | 2016 (10 March) | Headline | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
On 31 July, the Celtic feast of Lúnasa, a young student called Alice Morgan disappears into thin air. She was last seen at a church in Ballyterrin, Northern Ireland, where she worked as a volunteer. But when she vanished so too did the finger bone of St Blannad, a relic that averted famine and fed the hungry. Of more interest to the police, though, is that on this day in 1981 another young woman disappeared from the same spot, Yvonne O’Neill, never to be seen again. Dr Paula Maguire, a police forensic psychologist, isn’t one to believe in coincidences and Paula, better than anyone, knows what the missing can do to the family left behind.
A Savage Hunger is the fourth Paula Maguire novel but, although several members of the police team are living with the repercussions of the previous case, it reads well as a stand alone mystery. I have had the pleasure of reading the last novel, the excellent The Silent Dead, which did increase my interest in Paula’s rather complicated private life as well as her family’s painful history, but it isn’t essential to have read it first.
The majority of the characters in A Savage Hunger were either born after the Good Friday Peace Agreement or they were children when the Troubles were at their height. Nevertheless, the Troubles continue to overshadow events and shape lives. The events of 1981 won’t stay buried and as Paula and her team stir things up there is such a strong sense of a match being thrown on dry tinder. But that’s only one half of the story, in the other we have Alice, a young woman with a severe eating disorder whose troubled story, in her own words, weaves through the novel.
Claire McGowan presents a fascinating case. The details of the investigation are thoroughly covered, revealing the moments of excitement when a lead – or red herring – is uncovered as well as the inevitable frustrations when the case stalls. I really like Paula. She’s a popular member of a close team. And it’s hard not to care as she’s swooped along in her private life, trying to do the right thing, while the memories of what her family has endured continue to darken her eyes. I’m not usually a big fan of detectives with overly complicated private lives getting in the way of the case but Claire McGowan handles Paula Maguire’s life with a deft touch and it’s a thoroughly fascinating story in its own right. It also strengthens the theme of family which plays such a strong part in these novels.
The more I read Claire McGowan’s novels, the clearer it becomes that there is a huge amount of mileage here. There is so much potential, so much that can happen. The Troubles are so well treated. They’re always there in the background, sometimes coming into the foreground with a jolt, just as you’d expect they might. But both the Troubles and Paula’s private life are given their own place – they don’t interfere with the case at hand but they certainly enrich it and the novels as a whole. This series is fast becoming one of my favourites.
The Silent Dead