Thrilling novel, The Priest, is not for timid readers

Gerard O’Donovan is a terrific writer, and his second novel, The Priest, is a thrilling story right to the final page, which, of course, you’ll get to at 3 a.m. because the prospect of a good night’s sleep erodes right before your burning eyes.

Be warned, though. We’re leaving the winsome books behind for a few months and getting into the quintessence of crime fiction: murder and mayhem. If you haven’t yet become a fan of crime fiction from reading “Murder Ink” books for the last few months, then you will want to skip this column until we take a look at Andrea Camilleri’s new release in February. The Priest will test your mettle, your tolerance for disturbance will be gauged, and you’ll read some of the virtuosity in crime fiction plotting.

The Priest is a police procedural. It is not a psychological thriller; we’ll get to the most disturbing of those in the next column. O’Donovan is an Irish writer, and The Priest is set in Dublin. Mike Mulcahy is a senior investigator with the Dublin police who recently returned from seven years on loan to the prestigious Narcotics Intelligence Unit of Europol in Madrid. He is now the new old guy, his former reputation unknown to most of the current Garda, collecting dust and resentment while waiting for an opening in his old drugs task force. Only for the fact that Mulcahy speaks Spanish does he find himself assigned temporarily to the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit investigating the heinous violation of the teenage daughter of a senior Spanish politician in Dublin for a summer of English instruction.

Mulcahy’s interview with Salazar in the hospital immediately after her assault provides no information about her assailant, but the veteran inspector prudently refuses to continue with the interview of this acutely traumatized teenager, effectively relegating himself to the backseat of an investigation he’s not wanted on to begin with.

Inspector Claire Brogan, heading the sex crimes unit with her wisecracking lieutenant, Andy Cassidy, defiantly refuses to listen to Mulcahy’s seasoned advice, and rashly seizes upon a college student who was observed leaving a nightclub with 16-year-old Jessica Salazar the night she was found near death with a bizarre pattern of burns across her body.

While Mulcahy is relegated to reviewing cold cases in a converted broom closet, another disfigured victim is discovered, then another and a few more from cases gone cold years ago. Mulcahy’s instinct tells him there is more to these crimes than simply sexual assault, and, now, with no accountability to the investigation itself, he begins to find obscure clues pointing toward a serial psychopath. Of course, nobody will listen as Brogan clings to her hapless, too-obvious initial suspect.

Every police procedural novel is menaced by the press – it’s a convenient plot mechanism – and Mulcahy is pestered by a particularly tenacious and alluring journalist who he unwittingly teams up with to follow up on leads his investigation team refuses to acknowledge.

The Priest is an archetypal whodunit, written by a newly discovered master of the craft, edited to bare bones and absolutely required reading for armchair sleuths.

Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author. Reach him at JeffMannix.com.

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