Sleeping Beauties - Jo Spain
Sleeping Beauties - Jo Spain ****
In some respects Sleeping Beauties is a fairly run-of-the-mill serial-killer case that doesn't have anything new or imaginative to add to the text-book psychology and psychopathology of the killer or to the police investigation methods used to track him down. There is however one crucial difference that sets Jo Spain's book apart from the rest and it's a feature that is really the dominant theme in a her DI Tom Reynolds books; it's another means of exploring deeper, hidden aspects of Irish society that many would prefer remained unacknowledged and forgotten.
In Sleeping Beauties, Spain's third DI Tom Reynolds book, five bodies have been discovered buried in the beauty spot of Glendalough in Co. Wicklow. It's soon apparent that the bodies are of young single women who have been abducted as year apart, kept alive for some time and then strangled. That in itself makes the killer quite dangerous, but what is even more disturbing is that he appears to be targeting vulnerable women of a certain type; the type who are regarded as rather wild and promiscuous by their local communities.
And therein you have one particular aspect of Irish society that Jo Spain wants to draw attention to, since the killer has not only selected these girls for their reputation, but the rural communities where they lived have been quick to make the assumption that they've run off or in some way have deserved whatever has happened to them on account of their lifestyles. Spain however also alludes to a more ingrained Irish problem within this, and that's the misplaced respect that is given to the old-school policing of An Garda Síochána.
It's the same sense of deference for authority - priests, politicians and now police - that Jo Spain has referred to in her previous Reynolds novels, With Our Blessing and Beneath the Surface. Not only do they show how dangerous it can be placing complete faith and giving deference to these flawed institutions and authorities, but failure to speak out against them through discretion and the refusal to believe that they could be capable of corruption has permitted criminal actions to go unchallenged in Ireland and has contributed to a deeply flawed system. Perhaps more than most, the police have been involved in significant cover-ups and collusion, not to mention ingrained bigotry and prejudice.
This is the layer of denial and cover-up that Tom Reynolds and his team's belief in more modern policing methods have to break through to get to the bottom of the investigation into the disappearance and murder of five women - buried bodies not for the first time being an apt metaphor for hidden secrets and cover-ups. The fact that there is another woman missing adds another level of urgency to the investigation, but it also indicated that this is not sometime in the past, but is still relevant, and that there are doubtless many other young women beyond the five 'Sleeping Beauties' who have gone missing in similar circumstances, without anyone really caring to look terribly deeply into it.
That's the strength of Jo Spain's subject but there can be a downside to it as well. There is often something of a 'gossipy' soap-opera quality to the writing, particularly in Tom Reynold's domestic matters. Thankfully there is less of that this time in Sleeping Beauties, although the continuing will-they-won't-they situation between officers Ray and Laura is still rather juvenile and embarrassing. The tension with incompetent senior officers in Tom not seeing eye-to-eye with his new boss is also fairly standard and predictable, but probably realistic and in the context of covering up police errors and incompetence, at least very relevant to the subject in hand. Ultimately, it's that firm sense of purpose that gives an otherwise straightforward criminal serial-killer investigation greater focus and meaning.
Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain is published by Quercus on 21st September 2017