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Sunday, 19 January 2014
‘The Lost’ by Claire McGowan
An average of sixteen people per day go missing in Ireland, say police statistics, and teenage girls make up a large proportion of them. But two missing girls in one small border town in the same month is unusual, to say the least.
Forensic psychologist Paula Maguire returns to the home town she abandoned twelve years earlier to join a specialist squad set up to investigate cold missing persons cases, only to find herself thrown in at the sharp end now that the two girls have become the priority.
A fertile enough premise in itself, you’d think – but there is much, much more to this richly layered novel. The town is populated by a plentiful mix of personalities, some with a well developed back story, others with only a sketch, and even when the background is no more than an outline, there’s a strong sense of three dimensions, and life continuing off the page.
Paula Maguire herself is one of the most complex characters I’ve recently encountered in a crime novel. She isn’t always likeable, but Claire McGowan is a skilled enough writer to make her protagonist intriguing even when you want to slap her.
Like her native Northern Ireland, Maguire is damaged by a past which has left too many scars and rifts for healing to come easily. She’s intuitive and determined, and cares deeply about the work she has taken on; she also impetuous and makes some poor choices, and has a problem with authority.
Northern Ireland itself is almost another character in the tangled plot. Several times I shook my head in despair as the police failed to follow up yet another obvious lead – but it was plain that the author was all too familiar with her home country’s destructive history from which recovery will be a long, slow process, and the leftover issues it faces.
It’s tempting to place The Lost in that category of fiction often described as a novel first and a crime novel only incidentally, but that would be to do an injustice to a plot which kept this hardened reader guessing right up to the final kick in the ending. There’s no reason at all why a cracking good crime novel shouldn’t have all the qualities which should define good literary fiction: quality writing, vividly drawn characters with a life outside the confines of the plot, a powerful sense of the environment in which it’s set, and above all, something important to say. It has all this, and is a great page-turner as well.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
Claire McGowan grew up in a small village in Northern Ireland. After a degree in English and French from Oxford University she moved to London and worked in the charity sector. The Lost is her second novel.
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning.
She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.