Ten years ago Alison Smith, a university student in Dublin, fled to a new life in the Netherlands after her boyfriend, Will Hurley, confessed to being the Canal Killer, serial murderer of five young women whose bodies had been found in the city’s Grand Canal, his final victim being Alison’s oldest and best friend Liz. Now, ten years later, the murders have started up again and Will, confined to a high-security psychiatric facility, says he has information that he’ll pass on to no one but Alison. So the Gardai fetch her back to Dublin and beg for her help.
Are the new murders being committed by a copycat? Could Will possibly have had an accomplice, back in 2007, an accomplice who’s now striking out on his own? Or is it possible, however absurd, that Will is truly innocent, despite his confession and despite all the incriminating evidence?
The story’s told almost entirely from the viewpoint of Alison — from the viewpoint of two Alisons, really, one aged 19 and the other 29. The way that Alison has aged but barely matured in the intervening decade is nicely handled — the trauma of the revelation and the sense of guilt have stunted her emotional growth (not to mention her relationship with her parents). She hasn’t left behind her attraction for Will, into whose arms she often finds it hard not to throw herself during their interviews in the mental hospital; at the same time, she has difficulty not thinking of one of the cops as a sort of substitute Will, simply because he offers her a genuine friendship that she, as if still a teenager, is prone to interpreting as something more.
I also liked the treatment of teenage Alison’s slowly growing realization that, as we readers and those around her far more quickly spotted, Liz isn’t really the good friend Alison has always thought she was.
There are several good twists in the tale along the way. I’d worked out the final, major twist well in advance, but was pleased by the way it was worked out in the event.
A great premise, a gripping plot, intriguing characterization — there’s many a novel that would be happy to score on those three counts alone. But what really marks out The Liar’s Girl from others of its ilk is that it’s supremely well written. Within the first couple of pages I was completely under the spell of Howard’s telling; from there on it would have hardly mattered to me if it had been an account of a vicarage tea party. The page-turning suspense of the tale was, if you like, a bonus.
(Amusingly, the proofreader seems to have found the same thing. The later stages of the book have quite a few misprints, almost all of them of the omitted word/transposed words variety, as if the proofer had become so swept along by the story that, so to speak, her/his eyes kept trying to race ahead.)
As an Irish female writer of crime/suspense stories, Catherine Ryan Howard must be weary of comparisons with Tana French. It’s difficult to keep them out of one’s mind, though. On the basis of The Liar’s Girl I’d say that Howard can certainly hold her head up high in the company of her compatriot, telling a tale that’s every bit as involving, complex and thought-provoking at (mercifully) about half the length of French’s recent novels.