Look out America, here comes Mickey Donnelly
By placing character and struggle at its heart, The Good Son more than earns its stripes as a crime story. And it’s action-packed, says award-winning crime writer Sarah Hilary
Sarah Hilary, whose debut, Someone Else’s Skin, won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015: In Mickey Donnelly, readers have an amateur detective who is also an innocent bystander. It’s a clever conceit, and a neat departure (intentional or otherwise) from the current fashion for unreliable narrators. He also has just a smidgen of Tom Ripley about him
“Sometimes,” says Paul McVeigh in an article written for The Irish Times in 2015, “I think of the Troubles as a Gothic family melodrama. Northern Ireland is this damaged child, beating itself over the head to get attention from the South, the over-sensitive, guilt-ridden, mother that left them behind for a better life, and Britain, the distant, uncaring father who would rather not be left bringing up this problem child, but does so out of obligation.”
It’s an intriguing analogy, the more so for me as I wrote my university thesis on “The hero-villain in Gothic literature”. But if the author set his story against a backdrop rotten with family melodrama then the deeper conflicts and consequences in The Good Son owe more to the traditional cut and thrust of a detective story.
As McVeigh says, “In the end … The Good Son isn’t about the Troubles … it’s about a little boy who … fights the despair, the bleakness, and the violence”.
By placing character and struggle at the heart of the story, The Good Son more than earns its stripes as a crime story. That’s before you consider the fact that it’s packed with action, fairly whipping along at a pace that’ll give you paper cuts if you’re not careful.
In Mickey Donnelly, readers have an amateur detective who is also an innocent bystander. It’s a clever conceit, and a neat departure (intentional or otherwise) from the current fashion for unreliable narrators. Mickey witnesses events which readers understand to be depraved and brutal, but which Mickey relates with an innocent impartiality. This impartiality, were he not 10 years old, would hint at a lack of empathy, perhaps even sociopathic leanings. But Mickey is 10 and brutalised by his surroundings, growing up in a place so scarred and dangerous it rivals any improvised prison dreamt up by the worst of crime fiction’s serial killers. The pit in Buffalo Bill’s house has nothing on the Bray or the Bone hills. Hard to imagine a more degrading fate than that suffered by the young woman found tarred and feathered for sleeping with the wrong man, an image made all the more powerful because we know it happened often and to many.
The Irish Times Book Club podcast with Paul McVeigh
Then there is Mickey’s instinct to seek answers and find solutions. He’s always figuring things out or else making plans, plotting and scheming. Not just the whodunnit of traditional detective fiction for our Mickey; he’s fascinated by the whydunnit which is far more popular – one might say on-trend – with today’s crime writers.
If Mickey is a born detective, then he’s living in the right place. The ripe smell of red herrings runs throughout the story, which twangs with tension too. A real sense of dread builds as the denouement approaches, before the satisfying inevitability of the ending where pieces slot into place and we applaud the storyteller’s skill. The shape of the story is without doubt that of a cracking crime story.
The ending has the delicious poise of a cliff-hanger, too.
Mickey is bound for the land of his dreams. He is, he tells the hostess on his flight over, “quite the loner”, and there’s a chill at the nape of our necks as we glimpse the young man Mickey might grow up to be. Just a smidgen of Tom Ripley there, right at the end, winking at the clouds and making himself comfy for the journey.
Look out America, here comes Mickey.
The Good Son is published by Salt
Sarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015 and was a World Book Night selection for 2016. The Observer’s Book of the Month (“superbly disturbing”) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. No Other Darkness, the second in the series, was published in 2015. The Marnie Rome series continued in 2016 with Tastes Like Fear. Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Sarah_Hilary