THE PRIEST By Gerard O’Donovan

by John Boland

Thomas Harris has a lot to answer for. There had been serial killers in fiction before he came along, of course, but Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs set the template for what is now a staple, indeed a cliché, of contemporary crime writing, and there are few authors entering the field who don’t feel moved to cast an implacable and inscrutable sociopathic murderer as their obligatory villain.

Cork-born Gerard O’Donovan is no exception and in The Priest, his Dublin-based debut thriller, all the  threadbare tropes of this sub-genre are dutifully employed: the scene-setting prelude, told from the killer’s point of view, in which a young woman (it’s almost invariably a young woman) is stalked and attacked; the ritualistic nature of the attacks, with marks left on the victims that  have symbolic significance for the assailant but whose meaning eludes the best guesses of the police; the dogged persistence and troubled past of the chief investigating officer; and the circumstances through which a major female character finds herself in perilous proximity to the villain.

But if all these aspects are wearisomely familiar from any number of novels and movies about serial killers, it’s to O’Donovan’s credit that he manages to hold the reader’s interest. He does this through a sure command of plot and pacing, a lively sense of locale and a quirky sense of character – his hero, Inspector Mike Mulcahy, just returned to Ireland after a long stint in Madrid, is an engaging figure, while feisty tabloid reporter Siobhan Fallon is likeably insecure as she separately pursues the maniac with a religious fixation who’s been causing terror around Dublin.

All the more a pity, then, that the author’s leaden way with language means that no cliché is left unturned. Characters have a “glint” in their eyes. That’s when they’re not “pounding the pavements” or “caught on the hop” or “throwing in the towel” or “bored out of their tree.” or “have an axe to grind.” Revelations, on the other hand, either “beggar belief” or “set alarm bells ringing” or lead to “righteous anger” or cause people to “stop in their tracks.”

These dead phrases and hundreds of other like them are employed with numbing regularity throughout the book’s 370 pages, along with such inept and ungainly metaphorical flights as “Having slogged their arses off all day out on the streets, the team was floating on a cloud of satisfaction.” The best you can say of such a sentence is that it limps in a straight line, and there are countless others that could be quoted. Indeed, if an editor’s  red pencil (is there such a thing these days?) had been applied to  the flabby writing, the book could profitably have been a hundred pages shorter.

However, readers who are unbothered about such critical niceties should find The Priest compelling and it would probably make a successful movie, where plot  and character are the key ingredients and concerns about prose aren’t paramount.

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