Tuesday, February 23, 2016


CONTROLLED EXPLOSIONS by Claire McGowan (Headline, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

An intriguing prequel to McGowan's acclaimed Paula Maguire series packs in great texture about the tail end of 'the Troubles' in Northern Ireland as well as insights into Paula's teen world before she contemplated forensic psychology. 

Some writers just have 'it'. Call it 'the X factor', perhaps, (if you can do that without picturing Simon Cowell) - it's that intangible glue that brings together plot, character, setting, and theme in ways that even if they're familiar tropes or character types, feels a little fresh. Not being so 'out there crazy' that you can tell the writer is straining to be unique in a 'look at this, it's unlike anything that's ever been before' way, but more - and I think this may be tougher - delivering something both familiar and fresh.

In short, Claire McGowan has 'it'.

CONTROLLED EXPLOSIONS is a beautifully rendered novella that falls in between Paula Maguire novels, in terms of publication, but is set well before the series began. Not that there isn't a link to McGowan's acclaimed full-length tales about the modern-day forensic psychologist. For the events, and the people involved, in CONTROLLED EXPLOSIONS, have a large impact on who Maguire is as a person, and many links to her contemporary life. So it's both a lovely prequel for regular series readers, providing extra depth and insight into Paula's character, and a very good introduction to new readers, who can get a taste of McGowan's talents in shorter form. You'll want more, believe me.

The story opens in 1998 on the eve of the historic Orange March in Northern Ireland. For centuries Protestants have proudly celebrated their history in this way - a history that is of course well-entwined with violent conflict with Catholics. It's a nationalistic and religious powder keg.

A Peace Accord has been signed, and changes loom to the political and policing structure of Northern Ireland. But rather than relief at long-awaited progress, coppers like Bob Hamilton and PJ Maguire, Paula's father, are on edge. Not everyone wants the Peace Accord to hold, and the marches are a likely target for violence from those on all sides of a debate that's more akin to a blood feud.

Meanwhile, Paula is being bullied at school, taunted about her mother who disappeared five years ago. "Tout. Your ma was a tout." It's a worse insult than your mother being called a whore, in a land where touts (traitors) are akin to paedophiles. Paula is seventeen years old, preparing for mock exams, but the bullying gets to her, especially as it escalates. Why did her mother disappear, and never return? And what's going to happen when a group of girls wait for her after school?

I was completely hooked by CONTROLLED EXPLOSIONS. It's the kind of story that made me want to immediately hop online and order McGowan's entire series. A beautifully crafted shorter tale which still delivers layers. McGowan captures the voice and perspectives of a range of people, from teenage girls to hard-bitten coppers staring into an unknown abyss after years of looking over their shoulders and checking under their cars.

I thought McGowan did a great job giving readers a taste of 'the Troubles', and some of the complexities involved in a land where countrymen felt passionately divided on political and religious lines, violence could erupt at any moment, but most were just trying to get on and live their lives.

Whether you're a fan of McGowan and Maguire, or have yet to experience them, I'd highly recommend jumping online and grabbing yourself a copy of this very fine tale.

Craig Sisterson is a features writer from New Zealand who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 140 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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