Book Review: The Famished Heart by Nicola White – an unusual crime story set in 1980s Dublin

I picked up The Famished Heart, initially thinking it would be a bit like Dervla McTiernan’s brilliant crime series featuring Cormac Reilly. They both have lead police officers who don’t fit in with their colleagues and a boss who probably doesn’t like them either. You get a good deal of police station politics in both. But this book is more of a slow-burner that reminded me of some of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels (now there’s a blast from the past!) with its focus on a small community and psychological drama.

We’ve got three main narrative points of view. Father Timoney is the unlucky priest called to visit two middle-aged sisters in his parish who haven’t been seen in weeks. What he finds would shock even the most seasoned of clerics: the Macnamara sisters have apparently starved to death, possibly willingly for religious reasons. Timoney has his own problems too. He’s only been in his parish a few months, has a dwindling congregation, an unheated church that is an architectural monstrosity, and a spiteful housekeeper. Throw in back pain and a lack of confidence and he’s really struggling.

Frances Macnamara is the sister that got away. She’s a glamorous actress who, now in her forties, is finding it hard to get well-paid roles, leaving her strapped for cash. She’s in New York when she receives the news of her sisters’ deaths. Flying home she teams up with a niece who was supposed to look in on her aunts, but there’d been a falling out with the older sister and she’s living in a grungy flat. So there’s nowhere for Frances to stay but in the house where it all happened. They soon get the keys because the police don’t think the deaths suspicious.

Well, Detective Inspector Vincent Swan thinks they’re suspicious; someone’s wiped any fingerprints from the door handles and made a crude arrangement of some ornamental animals. But Swan’s being stood down while there’s an investigation into police brutality. He’s not a violent man, unlike the two officers also under investigation, the kind of officers he really doesn’t get along with. Just as well Detective Garda Gina Considine is on the job. She’s the only female officer on the team and suffers sexism on a daily basis – this is Dublin in the ’80s, after all. But she’s smart and a good pairing for sensitive and thoughtful Swan.

Just when you think this story is all about religious mania – and to some extent it is – another death leads our two detectives in another direction and the plot really heats up. You finish the book thinking this is a satisfying mystery, but you’ve also come to know the characters really well. White writes about relationships superbly – throwing people together and seeing how they spark off each other and then come to new realisations. This makes you want to check in with Vincent Swan another time, so it’s good news that this is the start of a series. The second book is an earlier novel and book number three is out next year. A Famished Heart scores a four out of five from me.

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