Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan

Review published on March 13, 2018.

Too Close to Breathe is the much vaunted debut thriller from a strong new voice in Irish crime fiction, Olivia Kiernan. This is a decent serial killer/police procedural that sucks you in from the start and takes you for an enjoyable ride. The narrator, Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan, is a stayer, expect more in the future. An enigmatic character, a little difficult to get to know initially – actually, I liked her abrasive manner – which is explained by her need to be treated normally by her colleagues and not mollycoddled or pitied after an ‘incident’ in the past. As the story develops you begin to warm to Sheehan, you understand why she is so reserved and closed off to those around her. Sheehan is just back on the job after an horrific attack that nearly cost her life. She is still traumatised, this may be the onset of PTSD, but if she doesn’t get back to work she knows she will go under. The question is, will she let people get close enough to help her on the case and to adjust to being back? Because the first case her team has been given is anything but straightforward, so going it alone would be very dangerous.

Late October, 2011, Dublin, asphyxiation by hanging, 39-year-old female, suicide. Of course, women don’t usually hang themselves but there is evidence on the left arm of the dead woman that she tried to slash her wrists before giving up and using the rope. So Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan thinks Assistant Commissioner Jack Clancy is wasting her time with this autopsy, trying to break her in gently, she walks out. Still something about the case is niggling away at her, so when she gets her team together she treats it like a murder inquiry and when they start investigating things don’t entirely add up. First of all, Eleanor Costello’s husband Peter is missing. Also, although she was a respectable lecturer at UCD, she was using the dark net via a masking tool called Tor, a device for hiding your identity. That leads the police to the black widow site and they have to figure out what that has to do with her death? Sheehan’s team are worried about her, whether she should be back yet. To be honest so is Sheehan herself but she is determined to keep going. She is haunted by the memory of finding Tracy Ward in a pool of blood before narrowly escaping with her own life. Fortunately her testimony and that of a previous survivor should be enough to put the killer away for life when the trial comes around in a month’s time. Sheehan thinks it’s a slam dunk, but things are never as simple as that.

Frankie Sheehan narrates the story and it’s a great insight into her thinking, Kiernan manages to give an impression of her character in a very few words. This sentence that seems pretty ordinary actually says more about Sheehan than you might think:

“This was Neil Doyle: unmarried, intrusive and exactly the kind of person I’d cross the street to avoid. Everything about him was weak and soft…A consultant, whatever that meant.”

And this about a man helping the police out! The contempt is not unusual, police officers must come across the busy body neighbour nearly every day. But for Sheehan her comments are also part self-loathing, a fear of weakness just back to the job. A desire to be tougher than anyone else and not to give herself an inch of pity. She reflects that back on the people around her.

Before they can find Peter Costello and discover whether he or someone else killed Eleanor Costello, another murder is committed. This time a young woman, her body has been set alight on a bonfire in Clontarf and there is a UCD connection. Now it looks like the team have a serial killer to catch.

The portrait of Frankie Sheehan seems credible; PTSD sufferer, person trying to re-integrate, keep it together and with a desperate passion to catch a killer. Those around her are less well drawn but in fairness the focus is Frankie and this is a very personal story for her. The action zips along and there are a couple of nice twists, some decent court room drama and a few red herrings to keep readers on their toes. The uncovering of dark secrets and a sensible, if extreme, explanation of events make this an exciting read.

Paul Burke 3/5

Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan
riverrun 9781786489869 hbk Apr 2018


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