Gallows lane, by Brian McGilloway

Can Brian McGilloway's second novel, GALLOWS LANE, possibly live up to the first, BORDERLANDS, which among other kudos was Euro Crime reviewers' favourite read of 2007? Almost, but not quite. Never mind, though, the sequel is a great read.

The central character, once more, is Detective Inspector Ben Devlin of the Lifford Garda. Although Lifford is a small town just south of the border in Ireland, it certainly has more than its share of crime. Before many chapters have passed, an old IRA arms cache has been found in some woods; a young woman has been viciously attacked and killed in a house under construction on an estate; a pharmacy has been burgled; and a woman reports a prowler in her garden. To top all this, Ben is asked by his boss, Superintendent Costello, to ensure that a local man recently released from jail after a sentence for armed robbery, Jim Kerr, does not stay in the neighbourhood but moves on, because he is trouble.

In the midst of coping with these events, Ben is also caught up in office politics: Costello is about to retire and encourages Ben to apply for his job. This does not sit well with his colleagues Patterson and Colhoun, who discovered the arms cache – in particular Patterson, the senior partner of the pair, is one of Ben's rivals for the promotion. To what lengths will they go to make Ben look bad?

The strength of GALLOWS LANE is in the plotting, and in Ben's local knowledge. With the help of his attractively sympathetic partner Caroline Williams, he follows up every clue, visiting night clubs as well as discovering that a theft of Tamoxifen, a breast-cancer drug, could be to prevent "moobs", which turns out to mean "man-boobs". As with BORDERLANDS, the Troubles are a haunting, constant presence, affecting the investigation but not taking centre-stage. When the murders escalate, however, the national police are bought in to assist, or as Ben and Caroline soon find, to take over the main investigation while they have to work on apparently more minor crimes. Gradually, it becomes apparent that all are connected, and eventually the two teams work together with a growing mutual respect.

Ben is an imperfect hero, not entirely honest, and prone to panic attacks and the odd bit of extra-marital temptation – in this book the danger is in the shape of Caroline. Ben's wife Debbie is rather unformed, and his children somewhat idealised, so the threat to his marriage from Caroline – or rather, Ben's feelings for her – seems real, although readers of BORDERLANDS will find it hard to believe that Ben could possibly leave Debbie.

GALLOWS LANE may take only a couple of hours to read: it is an absorbing, satisfying book that delivers on all its plot promises; provides a strong sense of humanity; and leaves the reader looking forward to more. I am only sorry, from the point of view of future sequels, that one character who has been developing nicely has decided to leave the area by the end of the book.

First published at Euro Crime, April 2008.

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