Guilty by Siobhán MacDonald

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Guilty by Siobhan MacDonald front cover

In her 2020 psychological thriller, now available in paperback, Irish author Siobhán MacDonald explores the consequences of a tragedy that occurred a decade-and-a-half before the story begins. The perpetrator, Dr Luke Forde, a paediatric cardiothoracic surgeon, has tried to put it behind him, but his failure to do so is evidenced nightly by his patchy sleep and recurrent nightmares about a great, blood-soaked white bird falling out of the sky toward him.

He and his wife Alison are practically separated. She is pursuing her political career under the tutelage of her take-control father, Senator Cornelius Thompson, and living at the family manse, Crow Hall – a nice avian evocation of Luke’s dream-bird. Luke believes she’s carrying on with her business partner, but she’s so acutely attuned to how any particular situation would appear to her constituents all those familial issues are firmly under wraps. As is the recently begun affair between Luke and his therapist’s secretary, Sophie. Yes, the lack of sleep has affected his work, and mild panic attacks have forced him to seek psychological help. Reluctantly, for the past few months, he’s taken to visiting therapist Terence Black.

Although Luke is increasingly indifferent to Alison and her issues, he remains acutely concerned about their 17-year-old adopted daughter, Nina. From day one, Nina has been closer to Luke than to frosty Alison, but her adolescence is posing some significant challenges. To give them all a break, Nina’s been sent to visit Luke’s sister Wendy in Australia.

The Forde house is built on Lough Carberry in Ireland’s County Clare, and Luke keeps a cruiser there. The first sign of greater trouble is when he takes the boat out and sees the word ‘GUILTY’ painted on the boathouse.

Meanwhile, Dr Black is steadily digging away. He’s not so interested in the deterioration of Luke and Alison’ marriage or the effects on Luke of the recent death of one of his patients. He believes it’s an event in Luke’s past that triggers the panic attacks, and he’s right.

Author MacDonald uses the device of the therapy sessions to gradually reveal a lot of backstory critical to the story, from Luke’s point of view, of course. Readers have differing amounts of patience with flashbacks, and an excess of 20-year-old detail dragged me away from the now of the story.

Before they adopted Nina, Luke and Alison were driving home from a party where he had a lot to drink and hit a young girl riding a bicycle, killing her. This is the first in a long litany of occasions when the police should have been called, but weren’t, as Alison and her father reinforced the protective shell around the family.

Now, 15 years later, not only have persons unknown written GUILTY on the boathouse, someone has published a death notice for Nina. It isn’t true, of course, and seems designed to unsettle. And it’s just the beginning of what appears to be an organised campaign against the family. Nasty stuff.

When Luke finally reaches Nina by phone in Sydney, he’s reassured she’s alive and healthy, yet he’s frightened. He tells her about the death notice so she doesn’t find out about it on social media, and she treats it as a joke. It’s all downhill from there to a denouement that is a bit too drawn out and repetitive. Antagonists don’t need to explain their supposed motivations multiple times.

After a few chapters of this book, you may begin to feel a bit waterlogged. That would be natural, because it’s bucketing with rain from beginning to end. Roads are closed. Fields are flooded. The Lough is rising. Upstream weirs are being opened to prevent catastrophic flooding, which is making problems worse downstream, right to the doorstep of Luke and Nina. MacDonald does a good job in making the weather a soggily omnipresent actor in the story.

Born in the Republic of Ireland, Siobhán MacDonald started her writing career in tech. She comes from a large storytelling family, which makes creating fiction a natural stage in her writing evolution.

Try the domestic thrillers among our Best Crime Novels of 2020.

£ 3.99

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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