Irish writer Dervla McTiernan brings back her imperfect protagonist Cormac Reilly in The Good Turn

Dervla McTiernan's life changed forever when she and her family moved from Ireland to Australia after they lost everything in the GFC. She admits that she wouldn't be a writer today if she had stayed in Ireland.

McTiernan had worked as a lawyer for 12 years in Ireland but in Australia she was determined not to return to the law, found a part-time job and started writing at night when the children were in bed.

Author Dervla McTiernan likes to keep things 'morally ambiguous'. Picture: Julia Dunin

Author Dervla McTiernan likes to keep things 'morally ambiguous'. Picture: Julia Dunin

Her determination and dedication led to The Ruin which was published in 2016, the first in her Detective Cormac Reilly series set in her home town of Galway, Ireland. The Ruin won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, the Davitt award for Best Adult Novel and the Barry Award for Best Paperback Original.

Cormac Reilly is an honest policeman, a man of principle who has been demoted and relocated from an elite Dublin anti-terrorist unit to a police station in Galway. He is far from the flawed detective of many crime writers.

McTiernan believes that Cormac has really struck a chord with readers because he doesn't follow the well-worn template of a male detective, saying, "It would have been really artificial for me to create a character like that. It wouldn't reflect the men I know. If I wrote some completely emotionally illiterate guy who doesn't know how to pick up the phone or doesn't know how to have a conversation, it would have felt very fake".

However McTiernan doesn't want her detective to be perfect either and in her novels puts him "in a position where he is going to be confronted by morally ambiguous problems".

In The Ruin, therefore, a story of a sister's devoted love for her brother, Reilly struggles to work effectively against the discrimination of his fellow police officers and his suspicions of corruption in the local force. (The screen rights for The Ruin have already been purchased by Colin Farrell's production company and Hopscotch.)

The Scholar, the second in the series which followed in 2019, explores both the cut throat nature of academic research and the ruthless nature of the big pharmaceutical companies. McTiernan has said that she was interested in exposing " the more subtle forms of corruption we see in our world today" and that "people with a great deal of money and power have the ability to bend the world around them . .. I wanted to shine a light on that too".

The Good Turn completes what McTiernan describes as a trilogy. Cormac's trusted colleague in the Garda Peter Fisher has been promoted to detective. He realises "his job was difficult, sometimes dangerous and god knows it left him with little money in his pocket, but the truth was there was nothing in the world that he would rather be doing".

Fisher responds to a report that a young girl has been abducted off the street while walking her dog and bundled into a car. The only clue is a partial of the number plate of a black Volkswagon Passat. Cormac Reilly tries urgently to get a team together knowing time is an enemy but every experienced officer is working for a drugs task force who are expecting to make a major arrest that day.

As Cormac goes to interview the girl's parents, Fisher starts his own investigation, tracking the owners of black Volkswagon Passats and eventually identifies a suspect. Impulsively, he pursues him alone and makes a fatal mistake, which threatens not only his own career but also Cormac's.

Fisher is told by Cormac's nemesis, Superintendent Brian Murphy that he can be suspended while being investigated or take a transfer until everything is resolved.

Unfortunately the transfer is to his home town of Roundstone to work under the supervision of his father, garda Sergeant Des Fisher, a man he despises. In despair, Fisher rounds on Cormac telling him "you've pissed Murphy off because that's how you are . . . I'm in this situation because you are out in the cold and now I'm swinging out there with you. I'm a target because like a fool, I've supported you".

Cormac, however, has his own problems because he too has been suspended hving left Fisher, an inexperienced officer, unsupervised. Murphy tells him, "Peter Fisher has serious questions to answer and so do you". The narrative then divides as Fisher copes with the way his father operates as a policeman and Cormac joins forces with Interpol to try and discover why Murphy is so keen for him to be sidelined. The two stories eventually converge with the third strand, that of a young mother who has sought refuge in Roundstone with her traumatised child.

As McTiernan has said, a well-written crime novel "has it all. You have human experience, some examination of society but you're also going to have pace and a bit of excitement ... escapism and entertainment". And her readers will find it all in The Good Turn.

  • The Good Turn, by Dervla McTiernan. HarperCollins. $32.99.
This story Favourite detective keeps it real first appeared on The Canberra Times.