Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

“People I should trust”: Dervla McTiernan, The Good Turn (2020)

Cover illustration of paperback edition of The Good Turn

In the second issue of this newsletter, which I sent out in December 2020, I wrote about the first two books in Dervla McTiernan’s crime fiction series, The Rúin and The Scholar. I said I was keen to read the third book in the series, The Good Turn, which was then available as an audiobook, though I wanted to wait for the mass-market paperback.

As far as I can tell, a mass-market paperback never became available but I did finally manage get an American trade paperback edition from Blackwell’s. (The only other place I’ve seen a paperback edition for sale is on Amazon, and I haven’t bought anything from them for almost 5 years: I’ve deleted my Amazon account and have no intention of opening a new one.)

On first reading I was slightly disappointed. I posted at the time that

… if (unlike me) you’re one of those people who think that heavy reliance on coincidence in the plot of a crime novel is “cheating” this might not be the book for you …

The coincidence I had in mind is that, at a crucial moment towards the end of the story, a woman who has been looking after one detective’s ailing grandmother turns out to have clear and complete nanny-cam footage of another policeman cold-bloodedly murdering a drug dealer. Detective Sergeant Reilly acknowledges that he’s been luckier than he had any right to expect:

What an outrageous coincidence, that he should stumble across them here. (p. 374)

It was only on second reading that it became clear to me that Reilly’s encounter with Anna, the woman with the nanny-cam, appeared coincidental to him only because he didn’t know that his subordinate’s father, the local Garda sergeant, had been keeping Anna under surveillance as a favour to the father of the officer who killed the drug dealer. The various fragments of the plot connect up rather neatly but probably none of the characters sees the whole picture, at least not till the very end.

It is quite a bitty plot. There are several murders, and one drawn-out attempted murder, but none of them is central to the story, as particular killings are to the earlier two books. At its core, this is a novel about police corruption, how it spreads insidiously and is driven by the supply of and demand for illegal drugs — in this case heroin.

As depicted in the novel the Gárda Siochána is an organization hemmed around with strict regulations — that are routinely broken or worked around as a matter of course. Early on (p. 29), we’re told that it’s against the rules for an officer to be under the command of his father, yet there are two separate instances where the rules don’t stop it from happening in practice. The homicidal detective (Trevor Murphy) is the son of Reilly’s superintendent, Brian Murphy, and they work out of the same Gárda station. This is possible because Trevor is deputy chief of the drugs task force, which does not report directly to the superintendant, though the latter allocates officers to the task force when required, and is in a position to protect his son.

And then Reilly’s loyal and favoured subordinate, Peter Fisher, is banished to a rural police station, to work under the command of his father, Sergeant Des Fisher, whom he despises. Peter is under investigation and threatened with prosecution — which will end his career whether or not he’s convicted — because he shot dead the abductor of a 12-year-old girl. The abductor had been tipped off that the police were on to him and had released the girl, lost in the dark, terrified but “unharmed, at least physically” (p. 94). Peter didn’t know that the girl was no longer in danger, was afraid that she might still be in the trunk of the car, and believed there was a risk that her kidnapper might drive it into a remote lake in the dark.

In other words, Peter killed a man not out of anger or vindictiveness but because he wrongly thought the girl’s life was still at risk. His father, who is on friendly terms with Superintendent Murphy, asks as a favour that Peter be transferred to his command, so that Des can keep an eye on him and maybe teach him the error of his ways. Peter has never forgiven his father for Des’s behaviour during the terminal illness of Peter’s mother, when the boy was 8 years old. He is reluctant to be transferred, but Murphy tells him that the alternative is the end of his career and most likely prison.

Des’s fiefdom is the picturesque, isolated little town of Roundstone in Connemara. Peter is supposed to be tidying up the paperwork on a double murder. No arrests have been made but there’s an official story, which is that the victims, two bachelor farmers, an old man and his nephew, have been beaten to death by robbers from Dublin, who subsequently burnt out their vehicle on the way back to the capital. It turns out that leads haven’t been followed up and Peter inevitably incurs his father’s anger by filling in the gaps in the investigation. While he’s there, Des and his other officer administer a severe beating to a child-abuser. Sean Cummins had been sexually abusing his 14-year-old niece but her father, Cummins’s brother, persuaded her to withdraw her statement, so Des and the other policeman decided that they should encourage him to leave town permanently.

The contrast is striking between the impunity with which Des can approve the vicious and criminal treatment of Sean Cummins and the serious consquences faced by Peter over his killing of Jason Kelly, for which there’s at least an arguable justification.

In the meantime, Cormac Reilly has been suspended without pay, largely because of his failure to control Peter Fisher and his mishandling (because of severe understaffing, resulting from a 5-year recruitment freeze) of the kidnap case. It emerges that he’s being treated with particular harshness because he’s made a “protected disclosure” (p. 179) of his suspicions about corruption in the drugs task force. The disclosure is supposed to be confidential but, at the time he made it, he hadn’t known how far the corruption had spread. The difficulties that Peter has been experiencing are the result of his close association with and loyalty to Reilly.

Ultimately, Reilly goes straight to the Gárda Commissioner, who tells him:

“… I’ve suspected for some time. But suspicion is easy. Proof, less so. This conspiracy, this corruption. It is more deeply rooted and more widely spread than I think you realize, Reilly.” (p. 401)

The “outrageous coincidence” has at least given them the leverage they need to get Trevor Murphy to turn on the conspirators, including his father. The novel ends with Reilly’s reassurance to Peter Fisher: “We’ll be back” (p. 405). I’m sure they’ll both be back in Galway’s Mill Street Gárda station but I’m not really expecting to see them back on the bookshelves. The difficulty I had getting hold of a paperback copy suggests to me that the publishers didn’t feel particularly enthusiastic about pushing this volume.

Before the paperback was due to be released here in Ireland, McTiernan had signed a contract for three standalone crime fiction novels, the first of which, The Murder Rule is already out. It feels as if the publishers were keen to get on to the next (potentially big) thing and not spend any more time or effort on this series. Presumably The Good Turn wasn’t very well received in those markets where it saw a bit more of the light of day.

It is rather different from the first two books in the series. When writing about them, I emphasized the importance of female characters who were not quite central to their narratives — particularly Aisling in the first book and Della in the second. There are formidable female characters in The Good Turn too but they’ve been pushed more to the periphery, leaving Peter Fisher to occupy the centre stage. There’s his grandmother, Maggie, an ailing octogenarian whom the murderer still considers a threat; and Anna, of course, who takes off with her silent daughter Tilly to start a new life in what she hopes will be a safer place. There’s another officer from Reilly’s team, Deirdre Russell, who conducts a crucial interview with Jason Kelly’s neighbour and accomplice, providing the essential confirmation that the man Peter shot really was the abductor.

One of my very least favourite crime fiction tropes is the one where a detective bullies/cajoles a human resources person or psychiatrist who is bravely attempting to adhere to an obligation of confidentiality, privacy or data protection, to give up the information that the detective needs but doesn’t have time to get a warrant for. It’s such a tired old device, and it’s a big let-down to find Reilly resorting to that approach here. To be fair, he is under much more pressure than usual. I had said in my post about the earlier novels that he’s “a bit of a paragon” and “ever so slightly too good to be true”. Deirdre remarks on his unusual behaviour:

“That was out of character, wasn’t it?” she said.
“What was?” Peter said.
She gave him a look. “Come on. Reilly’s Mr. Calm and Collected. Have you ever seen him go off like that before?” (p. 43)

That episode apart, I found that most of my reasons for thinking the book slightly less than satisfactory on first reading had to do with something that probably won’t bother most readers. While rereading the book earlier this week for this post, I noticed that this edition had obviously been reedited for the US market, so some of the language had been changed. I think I’d been just barely conscious of that the first time around but this time it was harder to overlook.

I asked myself how many of the references to flashlights had originally been to torches — perhaps none, but I couldn’t help wondering. I eventually thought I’d worked out that when biscuits are mentioned in direct speech, they remain “biscuits”, but when they’re referred to in the third-person narrative they become “cookies”.

Perhaps most oddly, a news report refers to the seizure by the task force of “at least seventy pounds of heroin” (p. 127) but Reilly speaks about “thirty-two kilos of heroin” (p. 177). (But surely people always talk about heroin in terms of kilos rather than pounds, even in the US, that last bastion of imperial measures?) Most of these variations are insignificant and at worst a minor distraction, but when Peter feels like a beer and picks some up from “the liquor store”, I couldn’t help saying to myself “I don’t think we’re in Galway any more”.

I tried to find a sample chapter from an ebook edition so that I could compare some of the language with the US paperback. I know I’d read the sample chapter before: I think it was appended to the end of The Scholar which I read, and still have, as an ebook. But the sample chapter wasn’t there any more, another factor which makes me think the publishers are doing their best not to promote this book. It may not be perfect but it deserves more.

I’m looking forward to reading The Murder Rule, when (if) it appears in mass-market paperback.

Edition: I’ve quoted The Good Turn from the 2021 Blackstone Publishing paperback.


I’m now three-quarters of the way through the second year of this newsletter. In the next 6 issues, between now and the middle of November, I’m likely to write about some more crime novels (Sophie Hannah’s series featuring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer), Louise Nealon’s fiction (including 2 short stories that can be read online), another Thomas Middleton play or two, Ian McEwan’s spy stories and possibly Jonathan Holt’s Carnivia trilogy, or maybe something completely different if I get some better ideas. Time will tell.


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Thanks for reading.