Am I the only one who feels mighty old when a book set in 1968 is called historical crime fiction? It’s a label that’s been applied to Where We Lie, by Irish debut author Claire Coughlan and set in Dublin at the end of the Swinging 60s.
Historical or not, from the get-go Coughlan works her socks off to create an authentic sense of time and place, beginning with the book’s central character, fledgling reporter Nicolette Sarto. As her name suggests she is from Italian stock, and has recently moved into a flat share with another young woman, much to the disgust of her traditionalist mother. Nicolette is young and ambitious, and when human bones are discovered on Christmas Eve she is determined to be the one covering the story for the Irish Sentinel.
She’s in the newsroom of the Irish Sentinel on her own when the call comes through and soon her pulse is racing. The last big Christmas story was in the 1950s and involved Gloria Fitzpatrick, sentenced to hang for the murder of Elizabeth Rourke upon whom she had performed a botched illegal abortion. But Fitzpatrick was also suspected of killing another woman, Julia Bridges, whose body was never found – until now.
The discovery of Julia Bridges’ remains sends Nic into an investigative frenzy. She is old enough to remember the case of Gloria Fitzpatrick, whose death sentence was eventually commuted but who died in prison of an apparent suicide, never having revealed where Julia Bridges was buried.
Nic begins digging into the background of this cold case, and soon she begins to uncover details which tell a very different story to the one that was widely published back then. It’s her chance to move up the career ladder and she’s determined to grab it with both hands – even when her investigations bring her alarmingly close to home.
Author Coughlan is herself a journalist and her depiction of the thrill of chasing a scoop rings true. Nic is a woman on a mission, and you’ll find yourself rooting for her. She’s a female in a man’s world, having to cope with misogyny and discrimination while trying to prove her mettle as a reporter. You can almost conjure up the none-too-pleasant mixture of Old Spice, stale tobacco and testosterone as the pages flip by.
Nic may be more than a decade behind Val McDermid’s Allie Burns, the reporter protagonist introduced to us in 1979 but both of these books imbue their narrative with a vivid sense of the cut and thrust world behind the front page headlines, and the many characters that inhabit it. It’s all a far cry from the clickbait of today’s 24-hour news sites and much more exciting as a consequence.
Earlier on I mentioned the Swinging 60s, but I suspect they were anything but swinging for many females of that decade. That applies even more so to Ireland, perhaps, and the plight of women trapped in an unwanted pregnancy. The terrible, desperate lengths they must go to in order to escape that situation is at the heart of Where They Lie, made all the more poignant and shocking by the current abortion ban in many US states as history repeats itself. Family ties, loyalties, stresses and secrets also have a huge part to play here.
Much is made of Dublin being a ‘small place’ in this era, giving the city we now think of as a cosmopolitan capital an almost village-like feel, but some of the coincidences that feature in the plot stretch believability more than a tad. That being said, this is a strong debut novel and I’m already looking forward to what Claire Coughlan has planned for us next.
Set in San Francisco in the height of the Great Depression, Copy Boy by Shelley Blanton-Stroud also features a young woman trying to make her mark in the newspaper business.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 4 Stars