The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

Small Irish villages really ought to inspire more good murders.  Most of them have all the basic elements of gripping crime fiction already all in place: spite, envy, malice, corruption, concupiscence and unmitigated greed.

Don't believe me? Wait until there's a will to be contested down the country. It's really a wonder that our mortuaries aren't filled to bursting with the done-in-dead.

Thankfully some of our most interesting new crime writers are more interested in the wildness in our hearts than the wildness of our coastlines. With her debut police procedural meets good old fashioned gothic mystery, Dervla McTiernan is clearly one of them, having twinned Chandler with Dickens in a tale that's as atmospheric as a London fog.

It begins with a suitably haunted detective called Cormac Reilly, who's past contains a particularly unforgettable though unsolved murder case involving Hilaria Blake in her ruined Georgian home. Decades later one of the two children she leaves behind is found face down in the River Corrib in Galway, an event the police brand a suicide but which the surviving sibling calls murder.

Dervla McTiernan's debut is a spine tingler.

Dervla McTiernan's debut is a spine tingler.

The stage is expertly set for a teeth chattering tale, that will rattle you from the first page to the last, as the dread and menace are amped up in this wildly diverting whodunnit. What's rare and unsettling about The Ruin is that contains philosophical and moral depth as well as thrills and chills.

McTiernan writes with the confidence and poise of a late career master at work instead of a debut maker, and that confidence promises her's will be a career to watch. When one of her characters is about to be charged with a murder she likely didn't commit McTiernan unveils a plot so thick and so dark a spoon would stand up in it. Make a date with this new writer.
Penguin, $16.00.

Becoming Belle by Nuala O'Connor

Oppression is usually at its worst when it's called tradition. Often it just means that over time inequality has calcified into the law.

Achieving justice against such a formidable opponent is very rare indeed history teaches us, but not impossible.

Step forward Belle Bilton. In Becoming Belle, author Nuala O'Connor tells the story of the real life Victorian era Anglo Irish feminist who bravely fought against every kind of oppression she encountered, in the process of just stepping into herself.

Becoming Belle tells the story of a young Anglo Irish heroine for our own times

Becoming Belle tells the story of a young Anglo Irish heroine for our own times

Bilton was clearly born decades ahead of her time. The eldest child of a middle class military family, she eventually set off for London in pursuit of a career as an actress, with ambition and steely determination guiding her every step.

At a time when British culture was still training young women how to be subordinate homemakers, she was passionately pursuing her own independence, artistically, spiritually and economically.

It was inevitable, given all that, that she would create a huge stir (and within four years she was talk of the town and the toast of its music halls). But tradition isn't dispensed with so quickly, so her rise and self reliance made her a subject of increasingly vicious slander in the tabloid press.

Smart, funny, talented and beautiful, she captivated almost everyone she encountered, but her rise was not the stuff of fairytales. She married a titled Earl and became a Countess through a fast but heartfelt marriage, but her latter days were far from idyllic.

What O'Conner excels at is her characterization, she takes you where Belle went and makes you feel what her heroine feels. Her attention to period detail is meticulous and her rage at the social nets that try to bring her heroine down helps drive the narrative.

It's Belle's determination to live her life on her own terms and in defiance of her times that makes her such a fascinating subject for the author and the reader. In an era were braying men are trying to reassert the dominance she's a touchstone from the past to inspire in the present.

19the century London was a center of empire and about as corrupt and complacent as that implies. O'Connor brings it all back to life and places another bohemian Irish rebel in its midst. You'll cheer for the young heroine in this David versus Goliath tale that leads to that most unexpected result, a happy ending.
Putnam, $25.00.