Halfway House by Helen FitzGerald

3 Mins read
Halfway House by Helen FitzGerald front cover

Helen FitzGerald is known primarily for writing gripping thrillers like The Cry (2013), which was adapted for television in 2018. If you have ever had the good fortune to attend a crime fiction festival with her on a panel, you will also be aware of her dark sense of humour. Occasionally, this seeps into her books too, like the award winning Worst Case Scenario. Her latest, Halfway House, is both thrilling and darkly humorous.

This is the tale of Lou O’Dowd, a young woman wanting to break free from her old life in Australia. She has managed to get a job in Edinburgh working at halfway house with high risk offenders. As we are first introduced to the city from Lou’s perspective, it is a romanticised place. Lou has visions of herself skipping across the grass in the Meadows and linking hands with friends at Hogmanay. She has spent considerable time Google walking around the city and thinks that all of Edinburgh is dreamlike and beautiful. She will discover that there is also a dark side to the city.

Lou is a series of contradictions. She naively dreams of a man who will sweep her off her feet, but she was quite calculating in negotiating the financial arrangements of being a mistress with her former boyfriend. There is a school of thought that female central characters should be likeable. Flawed characters like Lou are much more interesting. Lou is a tad messy when it comes to maintaining relationships and has a bad habit of telling lies and using people.

One of the people that Lou has ghosted in the past is her cousin Becks. In spite of this cruel behavior, Becks has happily welcomed Lou to Edinburgh. In fact, Becks has invited Lou to share her flat. Becks is hoping to achieve fame during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Plath: The Musical. No doubt, FitzGerald had fun imagining the creative endeavours of Becks and her friends. Becks is always wanting to help the while they perform at the Fringe. Lou discovers that she must share her room and the flat as a whole with the various struggling artists that Becks has invited to move in.

Lou’s single status and paid employment have falsely given the impression of increased maturity. The truth of the matter is that Lou extremely underqualified for the job and lacks any understanding of the criminal background of the men living at her place of employment. Her caseload consists of individuals who were convicted for murder, dealing drugs and paedophilia. Her work orientation is one night working with another employee. This is totally inadequate training. All of your instincts will be screaming that Lou should quit and find another job.

You may have come across some books in the past that presented individuals living in halfway houses as rather one dimensional characters. FitzGerald worked as a criminal justice social worker for over 15 years, so she knows that someone can be a calculating criminal and also be very nice, charming and intelligent. One facet does not negate the others. The men living at the Supported Accommodation Services for Offenders have all done evil things, but by including vulnerable and humorous moments, FitzGerald gives these characters realism and depth.

Much of Halfway House is the buildup to Lou’s night from hell, gradually painting a picture of the staff and residents in the halfway house. This is all necessary to help you understand why events unfold as they do, but it does slow the pace initially. This changes rapidly during Lou’s first Friday night shift alone.

FitzGerald has scattered hints throughout the book leading up to this moment. You will sense that things are going to go badly, but will still be shocked by the multitude of challenges that Lou must endure. She is about to get a strong dose of reality. Her response in a scary situation may surprise you. You will not be able to put the book down at this point. People in desperate situations will do desperate things.

Even when things are going horribly wrong for Lou, there will be the odd humorous moment. Strange as this may sound, it is not surprising as dark humour is a survival technique for those working in social service agencies. It helps to find something to laugh at so the horror and frustration of what you are dealing with doesn’t tear you apart. Dark humour has a role in life and crime fiction.

To learn more about Helen FitzGerald, see previous Crime Fiction Lover reviews.

Orenda Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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