Thursday, 24 April 2014

" The Dead Ground " by Claire McGowan - Book Tour. Review and excerpt.

Thanks to for the review copy of this book.......

Claire McGowan is back with her new Paula Maguire crime thriller.  I read the first in the series last month and couldn't wait for the next instalment!  I was delighted to see this pop through the letterbox and to be included in the book tour with Bookbridgr.  

Forensic psychologist, Paula Maguire is based in Northern Ireland and works within the Missing Persons Unit.  She is called into help when a baby is stolen from the maternity ward of a local hospital, hours after its birth.  Very uncomfortable with this case, for personal reasons, she struggles to keep her feelings under wrap and keep her secret to herself.  Not long after the kidnapping, a woman's body is found with her stomach cut open and dumped in the snow.  Things go from bad to worse, when a pregnant girl goes missing and another baby has disappeared.  Are the events linked?  Can Paula get into the mind of the killer? Is it too late for the missing woman and infants?

Claire McGowan has delivered another clever crime thriller, hot on the heels of The Lost.  Her protagonist is sharp, edgy and likeable and, once again, the author's knowledge of Northern Ireland and its border towns really make the location ideal for gritty atmospheric scenes.  Paula's missing mother is still a  part of the storyline and interwoven throughout the novel, making the reader desperate to know what happened to her.  Her father is trying to move on with his life yet is concious of his daughters feelings.  Paula  is surrounded by men in her job and seems uncomfortable with female co-workers.  This is a clever move by the author, as a girl who grew up without a mother would, more than likely, struggle with bonding with women.  Add to that, the appalling nature of the crimes and Paula's life is one of extreme stress. 
I read a lot of crime thrillers and can safely say that Claire McGowan is right up there with the best of them.  She doesn't feel the need to go into minute detail with each event, forgoing the technical jargon that a lot of authors depend on.  This means the narrative is the main event.  It's a good old fashioned who-done-it with a modern twist.  Having a female perspective may be a common thread in crime fiction these days, but with Paula Maguire, you get the back story, the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland and the fantastic descriptive passages depicting a wild countryside on a small island.  Well done Claire McGowan, you have definitely secured your place on bookshelves alongside Karin Slaughter and Jonathan Kellerman.

Highly Recommended. See below for excerpt........
The Dead ground is published by Headline and is available in all formats.


Ballyterrin, Northern Ireland 1993
It starts with the smallest thing: the beat of your heart.
When everything around you is horror, you focus on that.
The pulse. The life. You focus and get on with it.
It shouldn’t be like this. The phone call fills you with
dread and you don’t know why. You’ve been a police
officer since 1972, all the way through the hardest years of
the Troubles. You’ve seen things beyond your worst
dreams. A child blown up in a chip shop, the money for tea
still clasped in their severed hand on the floor. A shooting
in a pub, all broken glass and brain matter and country
music still playing on the jukebox. A woman burned in
a firebomb, her skin hanging off her like a shawl. Yes,
you’ve seen plenty, more than you thought you could ever
live with. You did live, though. It’s either that or die. But
now this one, this one is filling you with sick fear.
The call comes in the early hours of the morning, as
the worst ones always do. After so many years you’re
awake at once, silencing it even before you realise, trying
not to wake Margaret. But then she never stirs. Her back
is an immovable wall beside you. Then you’re up and
stumbling into your trousers in a dawn as dark as pitch.
You pause for a moment outside your daughter’s door, her
teenage breathing thick and deep. Please God, she’ll sleep
right through this and never hear a word. So as not to wake
your women, you put on your boots at the bottom of the
stairs, dry toast clamped in your mouth. You swallow your
tea too fast and burn your mouth; all day you’ll be tonguing
at that one raw spot on your lip.
Movement at the top of the stairs. Margaret, her face
pale in the cloud of her red hair. Her voice is tired. ‘What
is it this time?’
You can’t tell her. God help you. Can’t say there’s a
man just been found in a bog in Louth, small-time crook,
back of his head shot out, and you have to go now to some
farm and tell this news to his wife. You can’t tell her. It’s
Margaret’s worst nightmare, the same happening to you,
never coming home again. She’s been on at you for years to
give the job up, do something else. But what else is there?
What else is there to do? ‘Early start,’ you mumble. ‘See
you later, love.’
She stands for a moment, as if she might say something,
and then she turns her face away. It is the last thing you see,
floating over the railings like a white oval. Later, when all
the rest of her has faded entirely, you will try and catch at
it, her face in the morning gloom that day, her voice cracked
and dry, and how she turns away, once and for good, into
the dark.
You drive through empty streets, a winter mist already
rising off the roads, your breath like steam. It’s October,
dark now until eight a.m. The road down to the farm is
black, rising red in the east. Red sky in the morning,
Shepherd’s warning. That’s what your daughter will say
when she wakes up for school in an hour. Even the
animals seem asleep, faint movement somewhere in dark
fields soaked with dew. Parked on the front drive, Bob
Hamilton’s already there, a nervous new constable in tow.
There’s Bob, out of the car, stamping feet and billowing
breath in the cold. Sergeant Bob he is now, and never let
you forget it. Of course he’s been promoted. Of course the
loyal Orangeman Bob has been promoted over you,
awkward Catholic that you are. There’s never been any
doubt. There’s no reason you should mind at all.
Across the yard, leaning on a battered Ford, is Mick
Quinn, the Guard who woke you this morning with the
news. He’s parked far away, as if there’s an invisible
battle line, and is cupping a fag in the icy morning air.
The Guard works over the border in the South, where the
husband’s body has washed up, but your territory merges,
it bleeds into each other, and these early-morning calls are
more common than either of you would like to think.
Mick is a tall fair fella with an easy smile, but this
morning he’s pale as milk. ‘PJ.’
‘Mick. You going in?’
‘Not our turf, son. You tear away.’
You are technically in the North here, so it’s your ball
game, but you wish all the same the Irishman could be at
your back, instead of bloody Sideshow Bob, red-faced and
dour, not to mention the wet-behind-the-ears constable,
who looks ready to boke into his cap. You trudge back
over to them.
‘Did you knock?’
Bob shakes his head. ‘No answer.’
‘Is she not home?’
‘No, it’s . . .’ Bob hesitates. ‘Her sister’s been ringing
her. She rang us too, apparently, to say the phone wasn’t
being answered. Wanted us to come out here.’
Christ. ‘When?’
Reluctant. ‘Three days back.’
‘She’s been here three days on her own? What did they
do to her?’ You know the husband has been taken by the
IRA. It has all the hallmarks. He’ll have been informing, or
invading their turf on drugs or guns, or maybe nothing at
all, maybe he just crossed the wrong person. Happens all
the time. But the woman. They must have done something
very bad, for her not to answer the phone in three days.
Your heart starts to pound. Focus, focus. ‘We have to
go in.’
‘There’s something else.’
‘What?’ Christ, spit it out, Bob. There’s a woman behind
those dark windows and whatever’s been done to her it
means she can’t so much as pick up a phone to her sister.
And they’ve known for three days, three whole days before
the husband’s body surfaced in the wet bog, and no one has
done a thing.
‘She’s pregnant. Seven months, the sister said.’
A few swift kicks and the weak door splinters. ‘Jesus!’
Bob flinches at your blasphemy but then turns pale
himself. The constable is retching in a flower bed. You
clamp your nose shut. The smell is what you’d imagine
after three days. Blood, and piss, and something worse, a
terrible meaty smell that seems to reach out and envelop
‘Mrs Rourke?’ You step into the carpeted hallway,
lined with pictures of a family. Wedding shots. Happy
smiles. ‘Hello?’ You move into the living room, see how it’s
disordered, chairs thrown round the place, a boot kicked
through the TV. The kitchen is small, off the living room,
behind a bubbled glass door. You can see something on
the other side of it, a dark shape. The smell is coming
from there.
You stop, the three of you, Bob and you and the poor
wee constable who’s all of twenty. Kevin, that’s his name.
First month on the job. You stop and then you realise it’s
going to be you who opens that door and sees what is on
the other side. You start to walk.
At first it looks like a mangled mess of flesh. Your feet catch
in the tacky slick of blood which has stretched over the
lino. The room feels like it has no oxygen at all, so cold you
can see your breath on the foetid air. You bend down to
the body, or what is left of it. ‘Mrs Rourke?’
She’s dead. She must be, all that blood – her face has
been beaten to meat, red and pulpy, her clothes soaked
black with it. And her stomach, is that – no, Jesus, it’s even
worse. The tangle of skin and blood on her stomach, that’s
her baby.
The baby is purple, its tiny eyes shut. It’s still attached
to her by the blue umbilical cord. It lies on her ruined
stomach as if exhausted. On one of the woman’s hands the
nails are encrusted with blood, and you see she’s been
trying to claw through her own skin. The other hand is
stretched above her head, handcuffed to the handle of a
drawer. You see what has happened. She’s been beaten,
then locked in this kitchen for three days. In that time her
baby has come, and there was no one, no one at all to help.
A knife lies beside her, bloodied, and you see what she has
done, trying to free the child from the prison of her own
body. A little girl. You want to put the poor wee thing
under your jacket.
‘Kevin!’ You’re shouting for the constable. ‘Don’t come
in here, son, don’t look! Get Mick – call an ambulance.
There’s a dead female and an infant, stillborn . . .’
You hear a noise and turn back. A bubble of spit forms
in the woman’s cracked lips. ‘Mrs Rourke? Christ, I think
‘No . . . No . . .’ The free hand reaches towards the
baby. ‘No dead, no . . .’
‘I’m sorry. She’s gone, love. She’s gone.’
The woman tenses for a second, then slumps back in the
pool of her own mess. The limp hand slips from her child’s
blood-slick head, and you scrabble on her damp neck for a
pulse. Nothing. Nothing. In your own chest your heart
goes pounding on, reminding you you’re still alive, and
that this bloodied kitchen with the melamine cupboards
will be with you till the day you lie down and die yourself.
You were sure the woman would die. How could she not?
She’d been in that freezing kitchen for days, bleeding out
across the patterned lino; the dehydration alone should
have killed her. Then she’d be joining the poor scrap she’d
given birth to. But you’ve been waiting in the hospital for
hours now and no one has come with the death forms for
you to sign. You wonder if Margaret’s right, if something
in you has hardened and died too.

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