Written by Theresa Talbot — The Magdalene Laundries and the abuses they concealed left deep psychological and physical scars on their victims not just in Ireland but in the UK, USA and Canada too. It’s little wonder these institutions, where ‘fallen women’ went to have their babies, have become the inspiration for crime novels. We recently reviewed Jo Spain’s With Our Blessing and now we have Penance, a debut novel that explores similar ground.
Theresa Talbot is a BBC Radio Scotland presenter, best known up north as the voice of traffic and travel. With a ringing endorsement from none other than Denise Mina on the front cover of her first novel, it looks like she is on the right road for crime writing success.
So, another author joins the Scottish crime writing fold with a book set in Glasgow, home of the Magdalene Institution, which ‘helped’ those pregnant out of wedlock until it was closed in the late 1950s as a result of an inquiry into the ill-treatment of inmates.
The plight of the women who spent time in the fictional version of the institution presented in Penance is something that interests TV journalist Oonagh O’Neil, who is working on a documentary about the place and what happened within its walls. She’s struggled to get any help from the Catholic church but things appear to be looking up when an elderly priest agrees to speak to her. The death of Father Kennedy, slap bang in the middle of mass, couldn’t come at a worse time for Oonagh and when his demise becomes the focus of a police investigation, things become extremely complicated, not to say dangerous, for our campaigning journo.
Make no mistake, Oonagh is at the very heart of this book with all roads leading to her at some point or another. Her good friend, Father Tom Findlay, is celebrating mass with Father Kennedy when he drops dead, while another pal, DI Alec Davies, is appointed to investigate the old priest’s death, where his suspicions fall on Jack Cranworth, who just happens to be Oonagh’s married lover.
The story skips back and forth between Glasgow 1958 and 2000, with tiny detours to the west of Ireland. The year swaps are clearly highlighted in the chapter headers, although unfortunately there were no months or days given – devices which could have helped to convey the passage of time a little more, especially where more recent events were concerned. For example, Oonagh’s PA Gerry is at work one minute, then 30 pages on, a holiday postcard arrives from him – though it felt to me like only a day or two had gone by.
Talbot has certainly done a huge amount of research before putting this work of fiction-based-on-historical fact together and the 1950s chapters are hard-hitting and heartbreaking in their detail, leaving us feeling nothing but sympathy for the poor women involved. In contrast, Oonagh comes across as shallow, self-centred and irritating and her pal Father Tom is little better. My favourite characters were the ever-grumpy DI Davies and his long-suffering sidekick DS McVeigh of Govan Police – they are a classic pairing who I hope to meet again in Talbot’s next Oonagh O’Neil book.
The narrative is well-plotted, with enough chicanery to keep it interesting up until the great reveal, although seasoned crime fiction lovers may well have sorted out the wheat from the chaff long before that arrives. A promising debut by an author who is surely staking her claim to a place on that creaking bookshelf labelled ‘the best of Scottish crime writing’.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars