With Our Blessing by Jo Spain

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With Our Blessing

Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, and the abuse that occurred inside them, has been well documented over recent years. Now it serves the background for the debut novel by journalist Jo Spain. It is a subject close to the author’s heart as her father was born in one of these homes in Dublin and her research into his background inspired the book.

With Our Blessing was one of seven books on the shortlist for last year’s Richard and Judy’s ‘Search for a Bestseller’ competition and was snapped up by Quercus straight after. It is a detective story set in a convent  and is vaguely reminiscent of Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, in which Inspector Garnache investigates a murder in an isolated monastery.

The book begins with a flashback to 1975, when a newly born baby is torn from the arms of its unmarried mother by a nun, who turns a deaf ear to the young woman’s pleas to be allowed to hold her child for just one fleeting minute. The story then moves to 2010 when the crucified, badly mutilated body of an elderly woman is found in a Dublin park in the depths of winter, a National Bureau of Criminal Investigation team, headed by DI Tom Reynolds, is called to the scene.

It doesn’t take them long to discover who the victim is – and their findings lead them to a convent and former Magdalene Laundry in the Limerick countryside, where the now deceased Mother Attracta formerly wielded the power over her fellow Sisters of Pity with a heavy hand. No wonder Tom and his team soon have a list of suspects as long as your arm. A second murder in the nearby village sets all the alarm bells ringing, and as the snow closes in and cuts Tom and his officers off from the outside world, it becomes increasingly clear that the killer is among them. There’s something decidedly Christie-esque about this scenario, but DI Reynolds is no Poirot, and thankfully there isn’t a great reveal in the library.

The plot is quite a complicated one, with stories from past and present mingling together like the twisted roots of an ancient tree. The author has obviously done a lot of research into the Magdelene Laundries and their sullied history, and she seems hell-bent on sharing every last drop of it with the reader. Trouble is, the subject has already been well-documented elsewhere. Some of the side-plots tend to take the focus away from the main storyline and the book is also populated with a huge cast of players. The various investigating officers and their assorted back stories, as well as all the nuns, make matters confusing.

With Our Blessing is the first in a series featuring DI Tom Reynolds – which is good news, as he was the most well-rounded and interesting of the crowded cast list and certainly worth further development. Unlike many police protagonists, Tom appears pretty normal and well grounded, although as this book ends, changes are definitely a-coming in the Reynolds household. A little judicious weeding out of some of the ancillary players and book two should be worth the wait. Jo Spain is definitely a name to watch for the future.

For another wintry Richard and Judy favourite try The Dark Winter by David Mark. Also, you can read our review of another Dublin-set novel, Are You Watching Me, by Sinéad Crowley.


CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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