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Book Review: A Famished Heart by Nicola White

Cover A Famished Heart

This novel is the first in the series featuring Dublin Detective Inspector Vincent Swan. Swan doesn’t get on well with the rest of the team at the station. He doesn’t go for drinks after work with the boys – he’s newly married - and he doesn’t resort to violence in order to get a confession. An unusual case – two sisters who have starved to death in a kind of religious mania – puts Swan through his paces and shows him to be a smart and sensitive copper.

The narrative point of view flips between Swan, Father Timoney the priest who finds the sisters’ bodies, as well as Francesca Macnamara, the women’s glamorous actress sister. Francesca is shocked to learn that her sisters have taken their religion to such an extreme, but teams up with her would-be actress niece, Madeleine, to deal with the aftermath.

The priest is new to the area, and struggling with a small congregation, a shrewish housekeeper and a 60s monstrosity of a church that would be better off bulldozed. Suspicion clings to him because of his naturally awkward manner. In this respect he and Swan have a little in common, struggling to fit in and battling hierarchies at work. Francesca couldn’t be more different with her exuberance and blunt manner. But she’s an actress in her forties, roles aren’t appearing as quickly as they used to and she is chronically short of funds. While she grieves the loss of her sisters, she’s also eager to see if she might inherit a little something.

This is a slow burner of a story, the ghastliness of the Macnamara sisters’ gradual demise and final days revealed little by little before another death which ramps up the tension. It’s a brilliant character driven mystery that reminded me a little of Ruth Rendell in the way a small community is conjured up with plenty of psychological interest. The 1980s setting makes our current constant connectivity via cellphones seem like another world.

I really enjoyed A Famished Heart and will be keen to read more by this author - we've already got The Rosary Garden, the second in the series, while The Burning Boy is due for publication next month. White crafts a beautiful story, and her characters are well-rounded and easy to empathise with. A recommended read for mystery fans.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: A Famished Heart

6 December 2021

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