Claire McGowan – The Lost

clairemcgowan-thelostNot everyone who’s missing is lost…

When two teenage girls go missing along the Irish border, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire has to return to the hometown she left years before. Swirling with rumour and secrets, the town is gripped by fear of a serial killer. But the truth could be even darker.

Not everyone who’s lost wants to be found…

Surrounded by people and places she tried to forget, Paula digs into the cases as the truth twists further away. What’s the link with two other disappearances from 1985? And why does everything lead back to the town’s dark past- including the reasons her own mother went missing years before?

Nothing is what it seems…

As the shocking truth is revealed, Paula learns that sometimes, it’s better not to find what you’ve lost.

The Lost is the first Paula Maguire book and author Claire McGowan’s second published novel after The Fall. Set on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland on the Northern side, the narrative reverberates with the memories of The Troubles and with the lingering, but very real, echoes of the sectarian divide. It’s an honest look at life on a troubled border and doesn’t flinch back at the harsh truth that while there may be peace, things are far from peaceful. And that is just the setting. A good crime novel, I’ve learned, depends far more on the strength of its characters than on the originality of the puzzle to be solved. And while the crime at the heart of this novel was quite original and its unravelling fascinating, what made The Lost an utterly compelling read was its cast of characters. 

The book’s – and indeed the series’– main character is Dr Paula Maguire. She’s a forensic psychologist who has been working as a consultant with London’s largest Missing Persons Unit. Originally from Ballyterrin, Northern Ireland she is recalled back to her home town when a special cold case Missing Persons Review Unit is set up there. But Paula left home for a reason, several reasons in fact, and McGowan only lets the reader discover these reasons a bit at a time. I really enjoyed the way we discover these facts organically, without getting huge info dumps on Paula’s history. In Ballyterrin Paula moves back in with her father, retired RUC officer PJ Maguire. And just that simple job description is important, because the Maguires are Catholic and a Catholic working on the RUC, or Royal Ulster Constabulary to give it its full name, was rare. Rare because on the one hand, this largely Protestant force wasn’t too tolerant of Catholic co-workers, and on the other, a Catholic working for the RUC was seen as a traitor and a legitimate target by the IRA. So life was never easy for Paula and her parents. One of PJ’s closest friends and almost a surrogate mother to Paula is Pat O’Hara, who is a wonderfully warm character always present in the background. But going home also means confronting those you left behind and Paula has to mend things with her former best friend Saoirse and her ex-boyfriend Aidan, something easier said than done. McGowan manages to convey the precariousness and awkwardness of the situations very well and I really liked how things aren’t immediately fine between any of them again, but that it takes work and time to reconnect.

The composition of Paula’s new unit, the Missing Persons Review Unit, is interesting. Not only does it have to be balanced out along gender lines, but along religious lines as well. Their boss is Inspector Guy Brooking, who is the quintessential Englishman abroad. He is also a way for McGowan to easily explain some of the realities of Northern Irish life to readers who aren’t familiar with it. Their Sergeant is Bob Hamilton, former RUC and Northern Irish Protestant. The hard-bitten and gruff Gerard Monaghan, who is Catholic, is a member of the PSNI, torn between this new unit and his other unit. The last two members are Avril Wright a.k.a. tech-girl, a Protestant, and Fiacra Quinn, a member of the Garda Síochána who is seconded from South of the border. I love the way they slowly jell into a unit, but it takes effort and again it costs time. My favourite team members were Fiacra and Avril; Fiacra, because he is just a big sweetheart, but also unexpectedly clever, and Avril, because I just like techy girls (as witnessed by my love for Criminal Minds’ Penelope Garcia). In addition of getting the team working properly, they also have to deal with the not-so-covert rivalry from the PSNI or as they call it “Up the Hill” run by the unflappable DCI Helen Corry (who I kept picturing as Cuddy from House for some reason.) I liked the turf war between Corry and Brooking and I expect that won’t be resolved any time soon.

The crime at the centre of the narrative is fascinating. And while the final culprit is shocking, the question is how much of the blame is shared with others. It’s hard to go into too many details for fear of giving spoilers, but here goes an attempt at explaining that statement. The entire chain of events is set in motion by separate actions of multiple people and there are several people who can be apportioned blame for the death of the girls. Due to the nature of the unit – missing persons needs to move faster than homicide – the investigation proceeds at a brisk clip, which also means that the usual breakthroughs of DNA and lab analysis are set on the back-burner to old-fashioned observation, information gathering (both digitally and through interviews) and straight-up deduction. I liked this switch away from the usual CSI methods and it made for a fast-paced novel that still had a lot of substance to its sleuthing.

I thought The Lost was fantastic. The story was gripping and the characters well-drawn and easy to connect to as a reader. McGowan writes with an eye for detail and prose that sometimes verges on poetic, without becoming purple, making the book a fabulous and smooth read. I was happy that I could crack open The Dead Ground immediately after finishing The Lost as I didn’t want to say goodbye to Paula and her team. If you like your crime led by a female main character and with an interesting setting, then I certainly recommend you pick up The Lost. Come for the setting and the crime, stay for the characters—you won’t regret it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.