Bad deeds in Baltimore


Crime: On the surface in Julie Parsons's novel, everything looks just perfect. Baltimore is a welcoming, sunny holiday idyll; the period house at the centre of the story, Trawbawn, is straight out of one of those Hidden Ireland guides, a grand house that opens its beautiful gardens to discerning tourists, and even when the action moves to Dublin it's to a leafy street and a two-storey, over-basement house close to the canal.

It's the people in Julie Parsons's new novel who are not what they seem, living lives built on lies and deception.

This is not a crime novel in the conventional, good-cop-versus-bad-guy sense. There isn't a private investigator on the trail of the murdering rapist at the centre of the book, so there isn't that element of suspense, nor are there any terrifying twists and turns - diversions maybe, but nothing to stop the hardened crime reader in their tracks. The answer to one of the supposed mysteries at the centre of the story - who is the father of a child - is so obvious from the minute it is mentioned that you have to suspect that Parsons intends the reader to dig deep into the psychology of the characters instead of wasting too much time putting two and two together. Instead the story unfolds at its own pace and there's an inexorable sense, reflected perhaps in The Hourglass of the title, that the badness must flow through right to the end, at which point it will simply stop.

Adam is the disturbing central character, and from the moment he appears, he makes the malevolent reason for his presence quite clear. Recently released from prison, the suave, handsome Englishman is in west Cork on a revenge mission for his cellmate and lover. The man, Colm Ó Laoire, believes that all his misfortunes, including his current predicament as a lifer in a British jail, stem from his treatment at the hands of Lydia Beauchamp, owner of Trawbawn, more than 20 years before. Adam is his psychopathic avenger. By the end of the novel the young Englishman has left a trail of dead bodies and raped women. The violence in The Hourglass, particularly the sexual violence, is explicit and disturbing.

In this, as in her previous novels, Parsons's strength is in her descriptive, sometimes lyrical style and her ability to establish a sense of place, an Ireland that's instantly recognisable. Through the briefest descriptions she gives her characters interesting histories, relationships and emotions without slowing down the pace of the plot. Her characters are juicy, red-blooded creations, from Lydia Beauchamp, a frail lonely old woman desperate to be reunited with her estranged daughter, who is nevertheless completely unlikable, to bored Dublin housewife Maria Grimes, whose family has a holiday home in the area and who is easily flattered into bed by Adam.

In Parsons's previous novels, particularly Mary Mary and Eager to Please, the plots were more subtly layered. Here, what linger are the violent actions of the psychopathic Adam and the subtle atmosphere of threat the writer so deftly creates.

Bernice Harrison is an Irish Times journalist

The Hourglass By Julie Parsons Macmillan, 355pp. £16.99