Beneath the Surface - Jo Spain ****
"If there's one thing I've learned with age, it's that if you scratch hard enough, nobody is good all the way through. Given the right, or wrong, circumstances, most people are capable of bad deeds".
The above quote from a character in her new novel summarises very well what looks like it is going to be Jo Spain's main area of interest and intrigue in her Inspector Tom Reynolds mystery series. Reynolds' first investigation, With Our Blessing, lifted the lid on aspects of the infamous Magdalene laundries and her second novel in the series, Beneath the Surface, suggests that there are many other bad deeds to be uncovered beneath the seemingly respectable surface of Irish society, history and politics. Politics would seem to be at the forefront of the investigation into the killing of a Minister's PA in Leinster House, but inevitably, there are deeper secrets and other motivations at play here.
Ryan Finnegan has been shot dead in a corridor of Leinster House, the seat of the Irish parliament, while attempting to retrieve compromising photographs from a PC. Initial investigations suggest that the photographs could have been used to blackmail Aidan Blake, an up-and-coming politician with the potential to be a future Taoiseach. It soon becomes clear however that the Minister is involved in some controversial legislation designed to favour a Danish drilling company working off the coast of Ireland, and there is a suspicion that the killing of Blake's PA and the blackmail photographs could be linked.
In Beneath the Surface, Jo Spain paints a convincing picture of the workings, dirty dealing and the underlying attitudes that prevail in Irish politics and in Irish society as a whole. The idea that many of its politicians are corrupt or involved in deals for their own private interests is no great revelation, but what is important here as far as Jo Spain's area of interest is concerned is that this kind of thing is tolerated as long as it is kept discreet and private. It's an attitude that applies not only to its social, religious and political institutions, but it's one that goes right back into the home. Keep your business to yourself and don't be airing dirty laundry in public.
In as far as it is applied to Tom Reynolds and the investigation of the police, this evidently presents numerous difficulties. When everyone minds their own business or has something to hide, where there are family connections and alliances involved, some with dark secrets of one sort or another, everyone is a potential suspect and that is great for a mystery novel. Jo Spain handles the mechanics of the investigation well, uncovering unsuspected revelations, lies and misinformation that throws the shadow of suspicion first on one person and then on another. There's just enough doubt however never to be entirely sure, and that's what you want to keep you reading.
You might feel however that there is rather too much old guff thrown in about families and relationships that has little obvious relevance to the case. Police Inspectors and their team all have family lives and love lives evidently, and who they are and how they relate to those around them in their private lives is obviously an important factor in who they are, in the attitudes they express, and in how they take that into an investigation. Unfortunately, most of the relationship and family issues here are of the most mundane variety, involving petty disputes and minor disagreements between Tom and his wife and daughter over the upbringing of children, while the younger police officers moon around with crushes like lovestruck teenagers. It's embarrassing stuff.
Even if it those sections are tedious and cause the reader to cringe quite often, wishing the author would just stick to the case in hand, they are not however entirely irrelevant and more than just filling out character to show that there is an ordinary (banal) human side of officers' lives outside the uniform. Family is important in Ireland and if you're looking to delve deep enough to find what might motivate anyone to commit "bad deeds", you'll find that family matters more than almost anything else. Like the gas pipes that run under the land, siphoning off the riches from the Irish coast, there's little difference between metaphor and reality in the highly combustible material you will find if you scratch down far enough beneath the surface. There's a rich seam of material for Jo Spain to mine here yet.
Beneath the Surface by Jo Spain is published by Quercus on 8 September 2016
Beneath the Surface - Jo Spain ****