A Famished Heart is the first release from Viper the exciting new crime imprint from Serpent’s Tail launched last November. It’s also the first novel in a new crime series to feature Detectives Swan and Considine and is set in Dublin in 1982. This novel has an intriguing and haunting story and will appeal to lovers of the Irish police procedural. It’s themes are reminiscent of Tana French but A Famished Heart is original enough in style to stand out from the crowd, there’s some fine writing here, and the story will shake you. The novel nestles comfortably within the framework of mainstream Irish crime fiction; religion, drugs, republicanism, family trauma and a past that refuses to remain buried so it has that familiar territorial feel that readers love. White has written a disturbing and off kilter tale that never quite reveals the truth until the satisfying denouement. She is very good at setting the scene, this really does feels like a run down Dublin, the city before the Celtic Tiger revolution. There a dark tone that is perfect for a bizarre murder mystery, the whole thing leaves you with a spooky uneasy feeling as you read. There’s a locked room mystery aspect to the story too, this is interesting but not for me the most intriguing aspect of the novel. White has taken some inspiration from an event that happened two decades ago in County Kildare using it as a kicking off point for a fictional story that is fascinating in its strangeness. In the summer of 2000 the bodies of four women were discovered in a house in Leixlip, they’d all starved to death, a tragic family suicide. White’s fictional story of the MacNamara sisters Rosaleen and Berenice takes its own course, there is much more than meets the eye here.

Dublin, 1982. Father Timoney rings the doorbell to no effect, there’s no sign of life in the house, all he can see is dead flies on the window sill, nylon curtains block any view of the rooms. Last night Madeleine, the niece of the MacNamara sisters, Berenice and Rosaleen, came to see Fr. Timoney because she was worried. She hadn’t heard from them for some time. Madeleine got on well with Rosaleen, the younger gentler sister, but had rowed with Bernie. Timoney realised he hadn’t seen either sister at St. Alphonsus Church either, but he’d assumed they may be going to Holy Trinity, the bigger church up the road, or perhaps were away somewhere. Fr. Timoney uses the key they have at the presbytery and as soon as he opens the door he smells death, it assails his senses, he breaks the chain and enters the hallway. There’s unopened mail on the floor and inside the living room he can see a shrivelled body sitting in an arm chair. Timoney calls the police in.

New York. Francesca, can’t help smiling when she remembers the money she squandered over the years, the high life in LA with now ex-husband, Jay Santini. Her big film was Dark Flows the Bann (1966), big in America, banned in Ireland at the time. Now she only gets bit parts on TV and is waiting for that play that will propel her back to the top, or maybe just provide a little financial security, she isn’t burdened with the same delusions as when she was young. Although she wouldn’t care to be thought of as old as such, after all she is only forty-three. Francesca sneaks into the Gramercy hotel to pinch a breakfast, every saved penny counts. She’s sleeping on a cot in a friend’s flat, but it’s getting uncomfortable as the boyfriend is around more often and three’s a crowd. Her agent won’t return her calls. Then her brother Philip calls from Dublin to tell her their sisters Berenice and Rosaleen are dead. Her flatmate pays her fare home, Francesca has $80 to her name.

Detective Inspector Vincent Swan picks up a call from Deerfield Garda station, a report of a body, he takes detective Garda Gina Considine with him, she’s new and keen and shows promise. The uniform guys are there but they haven’t cordoned off the area because they just assumed it will be natural causes. That maybe so but Swan wants to be sure first, he and Considine take a look at the house. While Swan investigates the body Considine takes a look around upstairs. She finds a second body under a bed, the officers missed it, also emaciated. The two women appear to have starved to death, a horrible painful end. Was it some kind of suicide pact, or did one murder the other? A note found at the scene written by Rosaleen to her sister says:
“… But I cannot stand the pain Bernie. I want to be in heaven but this way is too long and too awful. How soon will he come for us?”

While the superintendent wants to close the case as two tragic suicides, two eccentric old ladies, Swan isn’t so sure. He begs a few days to investigate further, there are small unexplained details that they haven’t got to the bottom of. Matters are complicated because Swan is under investigation himself. Republican gangster Brian De Barra claims he was beaten in custody, swan needs to watch his back.

White manages to create a creepy atmosphere in this dark tale that delivers a couple of original twists and turns. The story is layered, Madeleine, the niece, and Francesca, the aunt, form a kind of bond when reunited but it’s not plain sailing between them. Swan has to fight budget cuts and indifference on the case while defending himself from De Barra’s allegations, and Father Timoney has a little power struggle going with the priest at Holy Trinity as well as his bad back to deal with.

The scene where Fr. Timoney investigates the house at the beginning f the novel really establishes the religious element to the story and hints at dark events, there’s a little child of Prague on the window sill, its base surrounded by dead flies, the imagery is potent. The relationship between Swan and Considine is up and running but it’s a slow boil, the story is more the thing here, but it bodes well for the future. A solid start that puts Viper on the map.

Paul Burke 3.5* (personal read) 4* (group read)

A Famished Heart by Nicola White
9781788164085 Serpent’s Tail Viper Paperback 27th February 2020