Patricia Rainsford: A Secret Place (2007)

Garda Inspector Rob O’Connell is not functioning well due to the fact that he is obsessed with his wife’s being in a coma following a hit-and-run incident. He is therefore not at his best when he takes charge of an investigation into the murder of the brother of Limerick’s leading lawyer, a man who wields considerable influence. Meanwhile Gina Brennan, with her two companions Natalie and Kelly, is on the run from prison. She accompanies Kelly to meet Billy Hendrick but when they find him dead they have to flee the scene in a hurry. A SECRET PLACE tells the story of how Rob and Gina’s very disparate lives come together and how they are linked by more than mere narrative.

Rainsford is one of those mystery writers who is very obviously determined to use the genre to deal with a big issue; in this case loss and how people deal with it. Both Rob and Gina are dealing with loss; he of his wife, she of her brother, who committed suicide, and her uncle. The device which Rainsford adopts to achieve the psychological depth she requires for her subject is an interesting and unusual one: she has two first person narratives (Rob’s and Gina’s – the latter’s taking the form of letters Gina writes to her dead brother). While this stylistic ambition is to be applauded, unfortunately it does not really come off as Rainsford is not, as yet anyway (this is her second book), accomplished enough as a writer to pull it off. The two voices are not individual enough and neither wholly convinces, Gina’s in particular. The big problem with this is that the book then has no real plot to fall back on. While the reader is not entirely sure at every moment what is going on, the eventual solution is anything but stunning, and by and large the sequence of events is fairly clear. The only real surprise is the inefficiency of the police investigation, as Gina’s narrative makes it very clear how easy it should be for them to resolve at least one strand.

The book is extremely monotone with a general atmosphere of gloom and loss. While this is no doubt intentional and in keeping with Rainsford’s aims, it means once again that the focus is solely on Rob and Gina, and the book’s success or failure comes to depend on the reader’s involvement with these central characters. In my case I never particularly warmed to either of them so the book as a whole failed to involve me. In some ways it is disappointing to be so critical and is therefore worth emphasising that the conclusion – in the shape of Gina’s last letter (and her only one not to her brother) is satisfyingly heart-warming. It is also worth restating that the ambition displayed in the narrative form is commendable. But as a whole the failure to realise these ambitions, the lack of plot, and the monotone nature of the prose mean it is impossible to rate A SECRET PLACE as a success.