This book by a first-time Irish novelist (who is not a first-time writer, as she is RTÉ’s Arts and Media Correspondent) was a first for me. I heard about it from a Quercus publicist, and thought I probably was out of luck having a US address. But she told me it was on NetGalley and would tweak things so that if I requested it, I’d get a digital review copy. Though I’m not a fan of reading devices and the rights readers give up (privacy, for one), I have grown accustomed to having a few books on my iPhone for emergencies. Yes, there are times when I let such things trump my passionate desire to reset the net and stop having the Internet turned into a surveillance-industrial complex. So I read this one on my phone and enjoyed it very much (though would probably have enjoyed it a smidge more on paper).
I wrote a review of the book for Reviewing the Evidence, which has recently published its 10,000th review! Holy cats! RTE’s editor has kindly allowed reviewers to repost reviews after they’ve run on the site. If you haven’t previously discovered that remarkable site for mystery reviews, do make a visit.
An added bonus for me with this novel is that it’s about online communities, the subject of my sabbatical research. Crowley does a good job of seeing both the good side of these kinds of digital communities and the potential for bad things to happen. Oh, yeah, privacy is at issue, too. You can see why it ticked all my boxes.
CAN ANYBODY HELP ME?
by Sinéad Crowley
Quercus, May 2014
from the May 24th issue of Reviewing the Evidence
Caring for newborns can be an isolating experience, and some young mothers turn to the Internet for company and advice. Set in Ireland after the property boom went bust, Crowley’s first novel focuses on a virtual community of isolated new mums and the investigation into the murder of a single mother found in a flat at a mostly-vacant ghost estate, led by a driven (and pregnant) detective.
Guard Claire Boyle has a real puzzle on her hands. There’s no obvious reason her victim was murdered, and the company that let the flat where her decomposing body was found has little information about the tenant who stopped paying rent and vanished. The deceased seemed completely occupied by caring for her young child when not at work as a university lecturer. The night she left the baby with her parents to go out to “meet friends” for the first time since becoming a mother, she vanished. No sign of sexual assault, no theft, no clues to who killed her – or why.
Meanwhile Yvonne, a transplant from London, is at home with a new baby, bleary with exhaustion and unable to get any help from her irritatingly charming husband, Gerry, whose job in television production keeps him constantly busy. She finds going out to baby yoga or other social events that the visiting nurse urges her to participate in draining and dispiriting. Instead, she relies on an online forum, Netmammy, where mums chat with each other under nicknames, dispensing advice, sharing good news and troubles, finding company in moments snatched while their babies are napping. When one of their number stops posting, Yvonne grows concerned.
Between Yvonne’s chapters and those that focus on Claire Boyle’s investigation, postings from the Netmammy group are interspersed. At first these seem irritatingly shallow and chummy and a test of one’s patience for Internet acronyms. (“OMG” is the opening of the first of these passages, which are replete with references to DH, DS, and DD – dear husband, son, or daughter – and banal chatter about diapers and BF – breast feeding). However, these passages grow more and more informative and integral to the story. The participants’ voices begin to distinguish themselves and it becomes clear that the key to the mystery will be found in the group. The title, which seems a tacky and melodramatic hook, turns out to be a clever play on the seemingly trivial questions posted to an online forum.
There are a couple of moments when the detective makes choices that seem unlikely for a professional if handy for the plot, and though there are twists, some of the villainy is signalled a bit too clearly for seasoned crime fiction readers. That said, the story is cleverly assembled, the characters are well drawn, and the suspense nicely regulated to increase as the pages turn. The chatty sections are insightful about how a group of strangers who don’t even share their real names can get to know and care about each other through social media.
Yet the warning the book provides about how such innocent sharing can, over time, provide a far more detailed portrait of our lives than we realize is timely. Shortly before this book was released the former director of the NSA, participating at a public event at Johns Hopkins University, testified to the value of such aggregated information: “we kill people based on metadata.”