The remote Irish village of Duneen has known little drama; and yet its inhabitants are troubled. Sergeant PJ Collins hasn’t always been this overweight; mother of two Brid Riordan hasn’t always been an alcoholic; and elegant Evelyn Ross hasn’t always felt that her life was a total waste.
So when human remains are discovered on an old farm, suspected to be that of Tommy Burke – a former love of both Brid and Evelyn – the village’s dark past begins to unravel. As the frustrated PJ struggles to solve a genuine case for the first time in his life, he unearths a community’s worth of anger and resentments, secrets and regret. (Goodreads)
When I heard that Graham Norton had written his first work of fiction, I was excited to find out if he could be just as entertaining in fictional form as he is on the television. The result is to be found within Holding, a mystery novel that also manages to offer up a unique perspective of social life in a quaint Irish village.
We are first introduced to the village of Duneen via the perspective of it’s one and only police officer, PJ Collins. PJ is overweight and fast approaching middle age, having accepted since his school days that he was destined to be the butt of everyone’s jokes. He is well known in the village and longs for some excitement, not realising that his wish is about to be granted in the form of a dead body. The male cadaver is discovered at a construction site, the first body in Duneen’s quiet history and at first a complete mystery as to whose rotting form has been discovered. PJ is called to immediate action and guards the site until city cops can arrive, all the while contemplating the glory of solving a murder all by himself.
After much speculation from the locals, it is decided that the body is that of young Tommy Burke, who disappeared many years ago and was believed to have found a new life in London. With no DNA evidence to back up their claim, the police investigation is slow to start and purely based on interviews with those who knew Tommy. The primary subjects of these interviews are both feisty Irish females who were embroiled in a love triangle at the time of his disappearance. First up is Brid Riordan, who was engaged to Tommy and had romantic dreams about their union, despite knowing deep down that Tommy was only after her farmland. She has since married and moved on, but could she have been a killer?
Then there is her love rival, Evelyn Ross, who had fallen deeply in love with Tommy and thought he was courting her with a view to marriage. Could she have felt jealous enough to kill following his engagement to Brid? She has been single ever since, with a part of her clinging onto the romantic dream that she might be reunited with him. Meanwhile, she has been living with her two sisters, Florence and Abigail, with the trio becoming known as hopeless spinsters, or even as bad luck.
Offering up a fully fledged view of village life, Norton succeeds in capturing the essence of Duneen in both past and present. As we follow PJ in his attempts to navigate the female psyche and find out the truth, there are several twists and turns, not to mention mistaken identities, along the way. I particularly enjoyed the subtle exploration of the past, often narrated carefully and without too much tendency for overt flashbacks. The plot might not be the most complex, but then it isn’t trying to stand up against the hard hitting thrillers either. It’s the social aspect that takes precedence, and PJ is a somewhat unique choice of protagonist to lead us through it.
From the outset we know that he is a bit of an oddball, with his weight making him a mockery of the typical village plod. He is cared for by a housekeeper who cooks him extravagant meals each night, leaving him with little to worry about besides where the next parking ticket might be issued. In being called to this discovery, his dreams are awakened and he sees what police life could really be like. I thought he grew in confidence as he followed his hunches and began to realise that he could do more than he gives himself credit for. What I found more difficult to empathise with was his attitude towards both women, Brid and Evelyn. He is clearly besotted with Evelyn, the epitome of pure and virginal, hoping from the outset that she is not to blame. Then there’s Brid, who’s rougher around the edges and having marital troubles when PJ first questions her. He can see her vulnerability and plans to take advantage of it if it gets him the answers he needs.
I actually found that I empathised quite a lot with Brid, as she believes that no one has ever loved her for who she is, with her present husband being just as interested in her land as Tommy was. They have children whom she loves, but that don’t seem to connect with her anymore after she has hit the bottle hard. She is being faced with ultimatums to go alcohol free or to leave, placing her in a difficult situation even before PJ shows up to rake up the past. She might be a bit degraded, but Brid is tough and not about to be messed around by anyone, proving that she has the potential for feistiness and anger if pushed.
Evelyn is held up as the opposite of Brid from the start, living a sheltered life with her sisters following the death of their parents. The sisters share a protective bond, with Florence and Abigail not taking kindly to PJ’s interrogations. They make no secret of their disapproval of Tommy, thinking Evelyn was much better off when he disappeared. It becomes a difficult task for PJ to navigate the female hierarchies of Duneen, especially with his lack of knowledge regarding the opposite sex. Watching him try to draw out their secrets is not the subtle probing one might expect, but nevertheless he gradually makes steps towards the solution.
As a debut fiction novel, I think Norton does extremely well in setting the village scene and establishing the somewhat hapless character of PJ. I might not have liked him for the entirety of the book, but he is developed well and progresses along his own journey. I’m not sure if I can see him as the protagonist of a future book, but I look forward to whatever Norton attempts next and think he will have a great fiction career.
A fantastic debut novel from this celebrity author, as the investigation of a crime succeeds in defining the whole village. Norton offers a clever and enticing look at the social politics of a community, capturing its spirit completely and leading to several emotionally charged moments. The mystery plot might not be the most gripping, but the investigation will still suck you in and leave you wanting to know more about the residents of Duneen.