Earlier this year I embarked upon a personal challenge to track down some crime writing by female Irish writers other than the ubiquitous Tana French and the second book to meet this criteria is Louise Phillips’ THE DOLL’S HOUSE. The book is not recognisably a specific sub-genre, being part police procedural, part psychological thriller with a dash of something approaching horror in the mix (at least the kind of horror that used to exist before vampires took over the show). I liked it very much.
Its unusual structure is the first noticeable thing about it. Chapters are short – often only a page or two – and each has a title of either a significant location or one of the characters. I’ve seen this type of approach go horribly wrong but Phillips handles it well, using the choppiness to both introduce the many disparate elements of her story quickly and to keep readers as unsettled as some of her characters are for the duration of the novel.
In quick succession we meet psychologist Kate Pearson who is working on a rape case for the police as well as seeing her regular patients including a young anorexic girl. Then a policeman called O’Connor (if his first name is ever mentioned I missed it entirely) who is unsuccessfully battling his demons with alcohol when put in charge of the investigation into the drowning murder of a local TV celebrity in a Dublin canal. Then a middle-aged, recovering alcoholic called Clodagh who is desperate enough to retrieve childhood memories she plans to undergo hypnosis. Then a predatory young bloke called Stevie, consumed by dark thoughts and bitterness about the things he doesn’t have.
Phillips’ characters display the kind of messy contradictions that real people generally muddle through life with which means they are sometimes frustrating or unlikable but always credible. O’Connor for example is a basically decent cop but has a secret that both challenges that premise and makes him very believably human. Kate is a good psychologist – in fact the sections in which she provides advice to police are some of the most believable of their type I’ve ever read because they don’t offer the Criminal Minds type of “you’re looking for a 27 year old man who drives a Jeep, wears Nike runners and has an IQ of 133” profile – but she is blind to problems looming in her own life. Clodagh had such a troubled relationship with her recently deceased mother that you’d think she’d have fought to form a different kind of bond with her own daughter but perhaps she is doomed to repeat the pattern?
Normally I look for a strong sense of location from my crime fiction but there was a discernible lack of “Irishness” about THE DOLL’S HOUSE. However I suspect that might have been deliberate and if so it’s something I can forgive as I’ve an idea that writers in environments like Ireland and South Africa are probably a bit fed up with the expectation that their work will at least indirectly explore the fallout from the political woes of their respective histories. Here, even though the present-day case turns out to have ties to events 25 years in the past, there’s no hint of The Troubles, and the book could have been set in any large city which has suffered, or is still suffering, through the global financial crisis of the past half-dozen years. That said, Phillips does compensate by providing a very strong localised setting via the old family home in which Clodagh grew up and to which she returns many times during her regression therapy. It is this house with its mysterious attic and creepy doll inhabitants that added the horror element of the novel for me.
THE DOLL’S HOUSE kept me interested from start to finish not only because I wanted to know whodunit but because I wanted to know why. And what else was lurking in the shadows. It’s hard to do sustained suspense and character depth in the one novel but Phillips has nailed both elements. Thoroughly recommended.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Hachette books Ireland 
Length 400 pages
Book Series #2 in the Kate Pearson series
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