Without a Word - Kate McQuaile

Without a Word - Kate McQuaile ***

Although there are a few unusual features, the mystery of a woman's disappearance from her cottage in a little village outside Dublin isn't a particularly complicated one, and despite the lead detective's frustration, you can see where his superiors are coming from when the Irish police they decide to drop the case soon afterwards. There really isn't much in the way of leads to follow, there's no indication of abduction, no suspects and no body. To all intents and purposes, there's no crime. But there are those unusual features...

For a start, Lillian, the missing woman, has disappeared right before the eyes of her friend Orla, who is chatting to her at the time on a Skype call from London. Excited about her return to her home town in Ardgreevy where she is planning to get engaged to former rugby player Aidan and start out on a new business venture, Lillian interrupts the conversation to answer the door and never comes back. To Orla's great horror, she then sees the house become engulfed in a fire, and a blazing figure stumble across the screen. The mystery deepens when the body is determined not to be Lillian.

Without a Word certainly has an intriguing opening, but as Ardgreeney Garda detective Ned Moynihan soon discovers, further enquiries, forensic tests, checking of alibis and inquests all lead to dead ends. Kate McQuaile then leaves the mystery of Lillian's disappearance to simmer for ten years, during which time Ned is considering retirement, and Orla has returned to Ardgreeney with her husband James and set up a cafe. Ned and Orla however have been receiving anonymous letters from someone who seems to be intent in reawakening interest in the case of the missing woman.

Aside from the manner in which it occurred, the disappearance of a young woman is a commonplace event, but Kate McQuaile tries her best to simultaneously make a mystery of it and bring a little more psychological depth to it. Ned Moynihan has had to live with the disappearance of his mother from a young age, and it's had a major impact on his life and on his family relationships. He's still trying to come to terms with it and making efforts to reconcile himself with his dying father. Considering the attention it is given, it's not much of a stretch for the reader then to assume that there must be some connection between Ned's mother's disappearance and Lillian's - even if the women's disappearances take place many years apart and there is nothing obvious to link them.

And therein lies the problem in Without a Word, and it's not so much a problem of convenience and credibility - the author actually makes a relatively unforced connection between two loosely connected incidents - as lack of scope. It hints at underlying historical social issues and assumptions that are made in Ireland relating to how women (and missing women) are treated, but doesn't really delve into them for signs of a greater conspiracy or social conditioning in the way that Jo Spain's recent Sleeping Beauties does.

There's no reason why it should and it wouldn't matter so much if the investigation and revelations into the circumstances of the missing women was a little more involved and complicated, but the actions of characters is unconvincing, the family interaction feels awkward and the discovery of clues and revelations (in the cases of both missing women) feels rather staged and convenient in its timing. What is perhaps more of a problem for a thriller of this type is however again related to scope. Ardgreeney is a small town and the author restricts her focus to a very limited cast, so if Lillian hasn't just disappeared of her own volition, there's only ever likely to be one or at the most two suspects.

Without a Word at least provides the reader with a clear concise mystery that they can get their head around; it doesn't introduce unlikely twists and there's enough intrigue and doubt here to keep the reader involved. There's no reason why the book should have to delve deeper into the class and social issues that is raised by the disappearance of two women many years apart, nor any reason why the author should feel obliged to highlight their significance within the context of its Irish setting, but without any such distinguishing factors Without a Word is a smaller generic mystery that could really have been set anywhere.

Without a Word by Kate McQuaile is published by Quercus on 19th October 2017

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