Anna Sweeney’s novel Deadly Intent is an atmospheric murder mystery set on the Beara peninsula in Co. Kerry.
The story opens with an unconscious woman found on an isolated path in the country. The woman, Maureen, is a guest at a high-end guest house run by Nessa, a former journalist from Dublin, and her husband Patrick, a political refugee from Malawi. Although the initial suspect is Maureen’s husband, an unstable man named Dominic, the case gets complicated quickly as there is a suggestion that she may have been having an affair with another guest, the rich industrialist Oscar Maldin, who has now vanished.
Sweeney unravels her tale in chapters alternating between Nessa’s point of view, and that of a young Garda, Redmond Joyce, recently transplanted from Dublin, and bitterly unhappy to be languishing in a rural Garda station. These are two wonderful viewpoint characters. Nessa has a natural investigative turn of mind, and plenty of connections courtesy of her journalistic past, but her life is complicated by raising teenage children and the fact that she and Patrick are blow ins. It’s an interesting comment on modern Ireland that the fact that Nessa and Patricks are a mixed-race couple goes almost unremarked, while their status as blow-ins marks them permanently. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Although they appear to have been accepted readily by the locals — if only for bringing business to the area — people begin to keep their distance when things start to go wrong. Garda Joyce in contrast does not mix well with others — even within the local Gardai — and likes to feel sorry for himself. He has a taste for adventure and a burning desire to distinguish himself, but his social awkwardness provides a little light relief.
When Maldin turns up not just dead but clearly viciously murdered, the media descend on the tiny village in Beara and Nessa finds herself besieged in her guest house. Patrick left for Malawi on the morning of the deceased’s disappearance, and consequently is now a suspect. Like 18-year-old’s anywhere, the couple’s daughter is blithely unconcerned with it all, and spends all her time trying to attract the attention of the local ne’er-do-well.
Naturally, Nessa and Garda Joyce are suspicious of each other, and launch parallel investigations into the murder on their own time. Joyce proves to have good instincts for digging up trouble, and Nessa’s inquiries unravel motives beyond the obvious. The other guests at Nessa and Patrick’s guest house are interesting but minor characters, but the most colorful are of course the local neighbors: the gossipy pub landlady, the old bachelor who notices everything, and the oddball artist who lives by herself.
The author does a good job of making the barren Beara countryside a character in itself, with moody rendezvous by ancient standing stones, and plot points hinging on the use of isolated tracks and high stone walls. Sweeney also uses recent Irish history to provide both atmospheric detail (numerous isolated or incomplete houses as the setting for nefarious deeds) and plausible motivation (the murdered industrialist was a smooth operator with fingers in many corrupt pies).
While Bord Failte may not endorse Sweeney’s vision of life on the edge of the Atlantic, many things did ring true for me. The speed seemingly well-integrated outsiders can be cold-shouldered if they bring scandal to the parish, the desperation of teenagers to find connection and excitement in rural areas, and the many reasons people can find life in barren places attractive, either for a holiday or a lifestyle, all inform the novel, and it is these many small details that creates the sense that this is a real and vibrant community.
The plot echoes the post-national flavor of modern Irish life as Nessa heads to London for a research trip, and we see issues like raising mixed-race families and the economics of making a living in a remote place reflected in the story. The fact that Deadly Intent was originally written in Irish and published as Cló Iar-Chonnacht under the name Anna Heussaff in 2010, before being translated by the author and published in English by Severn House this year illustrates how the novel is engaged with the current moment on many levels, and the story is all the richer for it.
The location may have suggested a formulaic whodunit, but “Miss-Marple-in-Munster” this most-certainly is not! Deadly Intent is a complex mystery, a gripping read, and thoroughly grounded in the present moment. In contrast to formulaic books about Dublin gangsters or cosy period pieces (and I have nothing against either) Deadly Intent is a much richer and more well-developed story, and one that refreshingly doesn’t conform slavishly to genre norms.
Readers in Ireland and the UK can purchase Deadly Intent here…
US readers can purchase Deadly Intent here…
Anyone interested in the Beara Peninsula would be well advised to check out David Yeardon’s entertaining book At the Edge of Ireland: Seasons on the Beara Peninsula…