Written by Arlene Hunt — As the weather begins to thaw after a snowy Christmas in rural Ireland, a search party is methodically checking the soggy fields and pastures, looking for Gully Donovan, who hasn’t been seen for days. The discovery of a body face down in a swollen brook puts a halt to the search. Everyone is in agreement – poor Gully obviously fell from his horse and, unconscious, perished in the freezing temperatures. Then the body is turned over, and the extent of the injury to his neck is there for all to see. Gully, a local bully, member of a family of ne’er do wells, was murdered. But who could have done the deed?
With the scene well and truly set, the story leaps back 20 years as Evelyn Finchley creates outrage by professing her love for a Catholic farmer. Her father, the district judge and a staunch Protestant, disowns his daughter, and thus the outcast Evelyn begins her new life as Mrs Jack Byrne. She is soon mother to twins, but while Anthony is the perfect baby, amiable, happy and content, his sister Emma cries incessantly and seems to always be lagging behind as her sibling begins to walk and talk.
Emma is branded ‘different’, and she grows into a shy and reclusive child who is much happier interacting with animals than people. Anthony is a normal, healthy boy who sees his sister’s odd behaviour as an embarrassment and tries to publicly distance himself from her – although, in private, he and his sister still share a special bond. As Emma reaches her teens, she spends her holidays working with horses at a local stables – and her almost magical affinity with ‘problem’ horses is uncovered. It is a rare skill which is destined to lead to her downfall after Emma attends a local horse sale on behalf of a friend. He has seen the perfect steed and is about to pay big money for it, but she spots problems which could prove costly for the new owner and the sale falls through. This is of great annoyance to the seller, who just happens to be Gully’s dad, and he is not a man to cross lightly.
Arlene Hunt is one of Ireland’s best known crime writers and The Outsider is her eighth novel – her first since The Chosen in 2011. She is lesser known in the UK, but this book will surely change all that. It is a finely honed piece of writing with as many layers as a game of pass the parcel. Hunt sets her stall in chapter one, when a simple death by misadventure is revealed as cold-blooded murder, and from then on the reader is submerged in a world of secrets, shadows, misunderstandings and mistakes, darkness and disappointment.
At the midst of it all are Emma and Anthony, as different as chalk and cheese but bound together by ties stronger than any rope. Their story is at the very heart of the book and we follow them from childhood through to early adulthood. It is testament to Hunt’s fine talent that we come to care so much for them both. The Outsider is a very unusual crime novel which I really enjoyed reading. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys a slow-burning psychological narrative with an explosive finale.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars