A review by Matthew Munro, QUB, Belfast
Murder mystery writers love their settings. Some are as fictional as their detectives – like Ruth Rendell’s Wexford in Kings Markham, or Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and St Mary Mead. Others put their protagonists in real places, Ian Rankin’s Rebus stalking the streets of Edinburgh or Tana French’s Dublin Murder squad prowling along the banks of the Liffey. Few though, like Sharon Dempsey elevate their real life setting to the status of a character. In Who Took Eden Mulligan, Belfast seeps through the pages in all its bloody history, the crime and the detectives haunted by unanswered questions of the city’s troubled past.
As with her debut crime novel Little Bird Dempsey’s tale is a police procedural pursuing an investigation through the eyes of a detective and a forensic psychologist, though Chief Inspector Danny Stowe and Psychologist Rose Lainey are a fresh pairing. The two met as fellow Norn Irish in exile at Liverpool University but travelled in opposite directions until a family death brings Rose back to Belfast just as Danny is being released from the purgatory of Historical Enquiries Unit with a chance to resurrect his stalled career.
The lives of the detectives are as much a part of Dempsey’s tale as the deaths of the murder victims. Rose delves into the past of the mother she fled from, the siblings she abandoned and the name — Roisin – that she repudiated. Danny fears to admit the crumbling state of his marriage. Completing the quartet of plot threads are the present time multiple murders in a household of student friends on the threshold of fully employed adulthood and the past story of Eden Mulligan, the mother of five from the markets who disappeared one night in the midst of Belfast’s troubles.
Dempsey’s writing flows enjoyably making this an easily devoured book – I finished it in a little over twenty-four hours. As is the nature of crime fiction, the story starts very much in media res with the lone survivor and self-confessed perpetrator fleeing the bloody scene and throwing herself into a police station. One consequence of this is that backstory and context are filled in with reverie and reflection, each protagonist reminiscing about their shared pasts and more individual angsts. However, Dempsey handles that necessary exposition smoothly enough that it doesn’t distract from the narrative.
There are also plenty of nice lines that caught my eye.
When Danny and Rose are filling in the gaps
“Not much to tell really. I’m one cat away from being a crazy cat lady.”
When listening to the patronising pathologist
It occurred to Danny that, like some doctors and surgeons, Lyons possessed a bit of a god complex and was lacking in bedside manner. He had found his calling working with corpses, that was for sure.
A sister’s insight into their mother
‘She was our Ma, what else do you need to know? Children never really know their parents, not as separate people.’
Eden’s grown-up children facing another swathe of press hypotheses raking through their mother’s past
‘Every time they rewrite who she was, a bit of who she really was vanishes. We can’t afford to lose any more of her.’
Who Took Eden Mulligan is not so much a murder mystery as an examination of people’s relationships with their individual and their shared pasts. Dempsey’s characters refer explicitly to the notion of cross-generational trauma – that even in a time of peace ‘young people in Northern Ireland are affected by the violence of the past.’ That is what makes the Belfast setting not just more real than KingsMarkham or St. Mary Mead but more entwined with the story than Rebus’s Edinburgh. It is a story about Belfast’s past and present as much as it is the murders’ resolution or even Rose and Danny’s development. In that sense Dempsey has crafted something a hybrid novel – with the central crime providing not just the narrative focus, but the lens through which to interrogate troubled times whose ghosts still stalk the familiar streets.
See also the portrait in https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-writing-s-on-the-wall-for-the-north-again-1.4510973