Storming debut thriller with heroine who is ripe for another adventure


BERNICE HARRISONreviews The Insiderby Ava McCarthy HarperCollins 480pp, paperback £6.99

BACK BEFORE the mist was lifted from our eyes and most of us believed that bankers were clever but cautious types who minded our money as if it was their much-loved maiden aunt’s, a thriller based in Dublin’s International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) about golden circles, white-collar crime and naked greed could have seemed a bit too far fetched.

That mightn’t be quite so true any more.

At the centre of Ava McCarthy’s gripping first thriller is a small group of insider traders working out of three investment banks in the IFSC. Their biggest deal was rumbled six years ago, and one of the kingpins, the charismatic gambler turned investment banker Sal Martinez, is serving an eight-year stretch in Arbour Hill prison for his role in the scam. The news has filtered back that he’s due for early release.

Some members of the circle think his estranged daughter Harry Martinez might know where Sal stashed the €12 million profit from their last deal, and so a sophisticated and deadly chase – there’s a high body count on the streets of Dublin – begins.

Twenty-nine-year-old Harry (or Henrietta to her mother) is a one-time computer hacker turned successful security expert whose nine-to-five job is breaking into computer systems and exposing weak links for her clients. She doesn’t have the traders’ money and doesn’t want it either, but with threats mounting from the mysterious circle member known only as “The Prophet”, she sets out to find it – and his identity.

She uses all her hacker skills – and it makes for fascinating reading how vulnerable computer systems are and how available all our personal details could be to the right (or wrong) people with the know-how.

The tech details ring frighteningly true (without overwhelming the plot) and they should – Dublin-born McCarthy spent 20 years working in computer software, including a stint as an analyst programmer in the trading division of the London Stock Exchange.

In the IFSC, “where rich people come to get richer” and “where the buildings made of green glass that sparkled in the sunlight” remind Harry of the Emerald City of Oz, she meets some of her father’s old colleagues, all smug alpha males. Face-to-face, there’s no indication who in the slick group has ordered a psychopathic stalker to push her into the path of an oncoming train at Pearse Station or turn over her Ballsbridge flat.

Harry’s cyber-snooping helps her track down the money to her father’s offshore account in the Bahamas, where she visits and finds another, shadier world of high finance, albeit with better weather. Like her dad, Harry is a card shark – she spent her dysfunctional childhood trailing after him – and Texas hold ’em features in several chapters, although, as with the tech details, McCarthy doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too much jargon. Instead, she cleverly uses poker games and tactics as plot devices.

It’s not all work and Harry does have a burgeoning love life, a disappointed mother and a bossy sister, and McCarthy weaves all this into the story with the same sharp, dispassionate detail she uses to describe the money trail.

The twists in the tight plot are smart and we know someone’s a baddie, but McCarthy keeps us – and Harry – guessing right up to the end.

This a storming debut thriller with a central character who is a clear-eyed, non-sentimental soul sister of Val McDermid’s Kate Brannigan or Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski. In Harry Martinez, the writer has a strong, attractive and super-smart central character who is ripe for another adventure.

Irish Times