The Confession - Jo Spain
The Confession - Jo Spain *****
It should already be apparent that Jo Spain is one of Ireland's great crime writers, but even so her latest novel, The Confession, her first standalone novel outside of the Inspector Tom Reynolds series, proves to be an absolute masterclass in crime fiction.
The opening is intense and visceral. It's 2012 and a former top financier is sitting at home watching TV with his wife, when he is brutally beaten to a pulp with a golf club by a stranger who has walked into their expensive house. There are many reasons why someone in Ireland might want to take such an action against a banker around this time - and we later find out quite a few of those reasons - but the attacker, JP, hands himself over to the police and claims that he didn't know anything about the man or his occupation and that it was a random attack.
A motiveless crime of such violence seems unlikely, particularly as Harry McNamara is very well-known, having recently been at the centre of a huge investigation and trail over his bank's involvement in fraud and other illegal practices. The fact that he was acquitted only presents more reasons why someone might have a grudge against him, but moving in very different circles from the high life enjoyed by McNamara, there's no obvious connection and, with JP's medical history, the assault could indeed have been down to an episode of mental illness. But it doesn't seem likely, certainly not as far as police detective DS Alice Moody is concerned.
Spain not only sets up an intriguing opening right off the bat (club?), she also provides a number of perspectives that will eventually, you imagine, uncover the truth. It uncovers a lot more than that. We get Harry's wife Julie's first-person recollection of how they met, the difference in their backgrounds, and how the kind of difficulties the marriage had along the way. We also find out about JP's troubled family background with an alcoholic father and an absent mother with mental problems. And then, there's Alice Moody and the police investigation, which has the extremely difficult challenge of trying to find a connection and a motive in these family histories, when the attacker has already confessed and there is nothing to investigate.
Nothing to investigate? Well, as you often find in a Jo Spain novel, family background, Irish culture and related historical, political and religious matters often play a part in crime and corruption, and The Confession is no different. The author picks up here on other aspects of Irish society that have only been dealt with in passing in her Tom Reynolds series; the huge social divide between the city and the country, the tensions and mistrust that exists between them, alcoholism and the kind of impact it can have on families. Most importantly, Spain also tackles the issue of the Celtic Tiger years that eventually destroyed the Irish economy and had a lasting impact on many people. The Confession is not specifically about that, but it's relevant and well-integrated into the story.
So you know who did it, you already have a few suspicions why by about a third of the way through the book, but is that enough to keep you reading? Well, if you know Jo Spain, you'll know that there will be more surprise revelations on the way, but even if you don't, she keeps you gripped by the sheer quality and pace of the writing. More so than ever - particularly since she can dispense with the more mundane family life and minor romantic soap-opera aspect of the Tom Reynolds books - Spain insightful writing delves convincingly into the psychology and behaviour of her characters. Not just in the intensity and drama of the lives of Julie and JP, but also in the witty banter that characterises how the police deal with the daily challenges they face.
The Confession is a well-balanced novel in this respect, a true masterclass of crime fiction writing. Spain underpins criminal actions with convincing psychological behaviour that places her up there with Patricia Highsmith, but her subtle writing also interweaves it with events that place it in the context of our social environment. More than a whodunit, The Confession is ultimately about acceptance of responsibility. As you can gather from her previous With Our Blessing, Beneath the Surface and Sleeping Beauties, the specifics of Irish history, society and culture present quite a few unique areas for Spain to explore that theme. The Confession shows that this theme is from exhausted, and that we've got an author who is well-equipped to keep challenging those responsible.
The Confession by Jo Spain is published by Quercus on 25th January 2018