A month before Christmas, and Ballyterrin on the Irish border lies under a thick pall of snow. When a newborn baby goes missing from hospital, it’s all too close to home for forensic psychologist Paula Maguire, who’s wrestling with the hardest decision of her life.
Then a woman is found in a stone circle with her stomach cut open and it’s clear a brutal killer is on the loose.
As another child is taken and a pregnant woman goes missing, Paula is caught up in the hunt for a killer no one can trace, who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
In The Dead Ground Claire McGowan returns us to Ballyterrin and Paula Maguire in a chilling case that once again connects the past with the future and reminds us that history always echoes on into the present. I launched into this book immediately after finishing its predecessor The Lost and this second book in the Paula Maguire series was just as exciting as the first.
McGowan keeps developing her characters to be more rounded and complex and I really enjoyed Paula’s growth. Paula has to deal with some of the consequences of events of the previous book, which I won’t go into because spoilers, but I really liked how this interlaced with the narrative. We also learn more about Paula’s mother about the reason why Paula left Ballyterrin so abruptly twelve years ago and I really liked the way this was revealed. Every time I thought I’d figured out a clue was given that made that theory unworkable, so I had to rethink and in the end the real reason was perhaps not surprising, but it was unexpected.
Of course we don’t just learn more about Paula’s background, we also discover more about those around her: about Aidan’s past at university, about Fiacra and his family, about Avril’s personal life, and about Saoirse and her fervent desire to become pregnant. And most importantly, we see more of DCI Corry who wants to poach Paula for her own Serious Crime Unit. I really came to like Corry, who is outwardly the quintessential ball-busting female DCI, but in truth joined the force for very idealistic reasons and only puts up such a hard front to gain the respect she needs to function in her job. I’m looking forward to seeing how Corry and Paula’s relationship develops, whether it’ll turn into friendship or remain strictly professional. Because a friendship and sort of mentoring role for Corry would be quite interesting I think.
The case central to The Dead Ground is disturbing, especially so since its victims are children and pregnant women. It’s a case that hits close to home for both Paula, Fiacra, and Inspector Brooking and the entire MPRU team and the PSNI are driven to catch the killer behind these crimes. Once again, McGowan interweaves Northern Irish history and its reminders into the story. For someone like me, for whom the availability of the option of abortion has never been in question, the reality of the situation for women in (Northern) Ireland was confronting and the reactions to the family planning clinic run by one of the victims chilling. The fact that people considered her brutal murder her just deserts was deeply disturbing. The way the various victims slot together is intricate and very cleverly plotted. McGowan is very good at seeding clues into the story right under your nose, yet just off to the side so you have to pay attention or you’ll miss it.
Several themes seem to be floating to the surface of the Paula Maguire series, if we look at both The Lost and The Dead Ground. One is family, both in Paula’s narrative and that of the cases she and her team solve. It’s family in the broadest sense of the word, those we are born into and those we choose to be part of ourselves. The others are religion and politics, which in these books are indelibly linked together; so much of what moves the characters in these books is linked back to the Troubles and to religion, that it is hard to separate them. Another aspect that is connected to both family and religion is grief and the decision to let someone or something go. Paula can’t let go of her mother without having certainty about what happened; Brooking has to let go his grief and guilt at the death of his son; PJ Maguire is letting go of the hope his wife will ever return and setting himself free to find happiness once more. Loss – getting lost, being lost, staying lost, having lost – and being found or doing the finding isn’t just at the core of what Paula and her team do, it’s part of who she is.
I’ve really fallen in love with the character of Paula Maguire and I can’t wait to read more about her. There are several on-going character arcs I need to know more about, I need answers! 2014 seems to be my year for discovering exciting new (to me) crime voices and Claire McGowan is definitely one of them. Her Paula Maguire series comes highly recommended. Start with The Lost and be sure to have The Dead Ground on hand so you won’t have to wait a second to dive back into the story. It’s just that good.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.