The Irish author Catherine Ryan Howard won the Irish Book Award in the crime fiction category in 2021 for her novel 56 Days. One of the first books in the genre to really countenance the COVID pandemic, it was a nerve-tingling thriller exploring the intensity and intimacy of the seclusion of lockdown and its shadowy consequences.
The Trap is even bolder, taking inspiration from a series of missing persons cases involving women during the 1990s in Ireland, now known as the Vanishing Triangle. It’s an entirely a fictional story, set in the modern day with invented characters, but they owe their existence to a chilling past.
The Trap opens with a young woman leaving a nightclub and as there are no taxis she takes the last bus. It won’t get her home but she will be closer. She gets off the bus but her phone battery is dead, so she can’t ring for a lift and must walk. When a man stops his car to offer a lift, she gets in. The tension mounts as he drives and talks about the missing women of the Wicklow Mountains. Three so far – the woman wonders if he’s a killer? There’s more to this scene than meets the eye and it weaves the fiction from the real world inspiration.
Lucy is our way into this story. She wakes and for a fraction of a second the memory of her sister Nicki’s disappearance doesn’t weigh on her, but then the pain comes flooding back. This tale is rich in the emotional impact on the survivors. It’s been 440 days since her sister vanished. Lucy is barely hanging on. She’s unemployed, in arrears on her mortgage and generally struggling.
But Lucy can no longer wait for answers that don’t come from the authorities. She has to do something, offer herself up and risk being taken if there is a serial killer operating and the cases are not a tragic coincidence. There are other theories out there, though Nicki is one of three missing women, maybe more.
Lucy’s sister Nicki O’Sullivan is 25, her appearance is punky, her life unremarkable, her absence doesn’t rate the serious attention from the police and press that it should get. It didn’t start with Nicki,
We learn that the first victim was Tana Meehan, before there was a pattern the suspicion fell on her ex, Roland Kearns. Nicki, the second victim, had a punky appearance and an unremarkable life so her disappearance didn’t really get serious attention from the police or the media.
By the third victim, Jennifer Gold, things change. She’s 17, beautiful, innocent and blonde. Suddenly there are press conferences, interviews with her mum, a vigil and wider public knowledge of the case. A task force called Operation Tide is set up but it bears no answers.
While Lucy wonders how she can find our what’s going on, journalist Jack Keane tells her he has information the police are ignoring but he wants an interview in return.
Meanwhile, Angela works in the Missing Persons Unit of the Dublin garda. A woman hands in a handbag that appears to be the property of Kerry Long, a woman who has just gone missing. Angela wonders if this is connected.
Elements of the story are steeped in a gritty world that leans heavily on reality. But this is fiction and Howard creates scenarios and plot twists that are original and very satisfying as the mystery thrives on the themes of misogyny and how the failure of an investigation leads to trauma for those left behind. Howard’s invention is both gripping and terrifying. The central mystery circles around Lucy’s quest for her sister and a take on the police operation on the ground.
Howard takes the opportunity to explore some troubling issues in society. We’ve seen with cases like Ashling Murphy and Sarah Everard that little has changed. If you’ve read Claire McGowan’s recent book The Vanishing Triangle you will be able to reflect on the differences and similarities between Howard’s story and the real, historical cases. However, this doesn’t prove to be a distraction as when Howard’s story takes full flight it grips like a vice because we are captivated by her characters. The denouement is original and hard-hitting.
We get a sense of the press and garda reactions, they have their ideas, their speculations and their preconceptions which feed into the public arena. Are the women being held prisoner? Did the ex-husband of first victim attack his wife and acquire a taste for murder? Are the crimes even connected? In the real world there are still only questions not answers. In the fiction we are taken down different roads with surprises to savour.
Howard reflects on all sides of a tragic chain of events. The Trap takes in the plight of the missing women, the legacy for the relatives and the motivations of the major and minor characters. It ruminates on the nature of obsession and police, media and public attitudes to seismic violence. It questions the victim blaming, distorted values, corruption and incompetence in society but we also see dedication, bravery and profound empathy. The story of Nicki and Lucy will grab your heart, while the misogyny and violence that lets this kind of thing happen in society will make you angry.
For more Catherine Ryan Howard The Nothing Man.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars