A writer to watch out for

Taken from Irish News Supplement

It came as no great surprise when Shane Dunphy, the Irish and London Times bestselling author, turned his hand to writing fiction.  After all, his series of non-fiction books, which detail his years at the frontline of child protection, read like thrillers.  Eschewing the standard misery-memoir style of simple, linear structure, Dunphy opted instead to make his books dialogue-heavy and densely plotted, building characters with a deftness of touch and avoiding the subtle trap of cutesie kids and needy battered mothers.  The families in Dunphy’s books are tough, angry survivors who don’t want his interference, and part of what drives each story is the complex emotional dance between the author and his clients, vulnerable people who, usually with good reason, find it so hard to trust.

Despite the difficult subject matter, and don’t be mistaken, some of Dunphy’s non-fiction goes to dark places indeed, the books are remarkably easy reads.  Chapters are short, events move at a rapid pace, and you are so invested in the characters you find yourself thinking about them even when you’re not reading.

All this creates a feeling of slight trepidation when approaching the books of S.A. Dunphy, the name Dunphy uses for his crime series.  Doesn’t the logic go that if something isn’t broken, why try to fix it?

Luckily the adventures of David Dunnigan and his assorted crew of misfits prove there is no cause for concern.

After She Vanished is really a character drama dressed up as a mystery.  Dunnigan is a criminologist who struggles with OCD and some kind of borderline personality disorder (his mother informs him he is a mild sociopath).  He lectures at an Irish university and consults with a special squad of the Irish police force.  He seems destined for a stellar career, but one day in December, 1998, he goes shopping with his four-year-old niece, Beth, and she is abducted.  Eighteen years pass and the child is never found.  Dunnigan is crippled with grief and guilt, the university is trying to constructively dismiss him and the police, out of loyalty, are giving him jobs no one else wants.

While still following the tropes of a crime novel, After She Vanished is, in essence, the story of a man emerging from a period of great darkness, mostly through the kindness of others.  A missing persons case Dunnigan is working brings him in contact with a crusading, fist-fighting cleric and a widowed former special forces medic, who recognises a shared pain in the pale detective, and embarks upon an awkward but quite beautiful relationship with him.

The exchanges between Dunnigan and his boss, the phlegmatic Chief Inspector Tormey, are often hilarious (the Chief seems utterly frustrated by the criminologist, yet is clearly very fond of him).  But the standout character in the series is Miley Timoney, a twenty-something living with Down Syndrome who becomes Dunnigan’s best friend and confidante.  Dunphy has said in interviews that Miley is the emotional core of the series, and he is a fantastic creation, a gorgeous, open soul who never lets people’s perceptions hold him back.  There is a scene midway through the book when Dunnigan asks Miley for dating advice.  The conversation manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, heart-warming and intensely uncomfortable all at the same time and is an example of Dunphy’s writing at its best.

After She Vanished ends on a cliffhanger, one which hints that Book 2 might just offer serious clues as to what happened to the missing Beth.

When She Was Gone, the second book in the series, manages to continue the story seamlessly, while being a wholly different kind of book.  The stage has been set, the characters and their arcs established, and Dunphy takes his foot off the break and allows the action to fully take hold.

There is a relentless pace to When She Was Gone.  The tension ratchets by degrees until it becomes almost unbearable, each of the characters caught up in their own personal jeopardy, and there are times when it is impossible not to shout at the page as one of your favourites comes within a hair’s breadth of disaster.

Some reviews of After She Vanished have mentioned that the disappearance of Beth is put on the backburner, but in When She Was Gone it is all consuming.  As the characters move from the streets of Dublin to an island off the West coast of Ireland and from there to the frigid snow-plains of the Arctic, the driving force behind all the action is Dunnigan’s incontrovertible desire to find out what happened to this child he so loved.  As the picture slowly begins to form, we are privy to glimpses of the nightmare she was sucked into.

When She Was Gone, while being faster moving and very much action-based, has deeper shades than its predecessor.  Dunnigan came across as annoying but quite sweet in After She Vanished, his relationship with Miley, in particular, making him sympathetic.  This instalment is not shy about casting a light on just how selfish, narcissistic and downright Machiavellian he can be, using his friends as sacrificial lambs as he charges into the mouth of destruction, oblivious to their safety, or, indeed, anyone else’s.  To paraphrase Tormey, in one of my favourite lines from the novel: “You got what you wanted – you broke a town to do it, but you got there in the end.”

The Dunnigan series is unlike anything else you will read.  If I had one criticism, it would be that the titles of the books sound a little similar to some other crime novels they share the shelves with at present, and this does not do them justice.  Characters like Miley Timoney and Father Bill are utterly unique, and there is a quirky, unpredictable aspect to the stories that sends them in unexpected directions.  Details that may seem frivolous (Miley discovering the music of Chris de Burgh, for example) are effortlessly worked into the narrative.  Such flourishes may seem unimportant, but they add a layer of reality to the storytelling that truly brings the characters to life.

Dunphy also has a great eye for a villain.  His work in child protection has brought him in contact with some deeply unsavoury people, and these experiences get put to work here.  Ernest Frobisher, the bogeyman of the series, is absolutely terrifying.  When She Was Gone introduces Dr Phillipe Ressler, a psychiatrist with a history that would give Sigmund Freud nightmares.  Dunphy is at his best when writing dialogue, and each of these monsters speaks in a distinctive voice that seems distressingly real and makes them very memorable.

The Dunnigan books are an important series in modern crime fiction.  Book two also ends on a cliffhanger, and there will be a third installment in 2019.  Another non-fiction title is on the cards next year, too.  Dunphy has just signed with Marianne Gunn O’Connor, Ireland’s literary super-agent (her stable boasts names like Cecelia Ahern and Pat McCabe).  There can be no doubt that this is a writer to watch out for.

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