Too Close to Breathe
Fans of police procedurals such as The Killing, The Fall, and most especially Prime Suspect will find a lot to love in Olivia Kiernan’s Too Close to Breathe. A tale of a cat and mouse game between an embattled Detective Chief Superintendent and a clever, psychotic killer it is exactly the kind of novel I can picture being made into a program like those listed above.
Four months earlier, she nearly died. Answering a call of suspected foul play, Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan found herself in a life and death struggle in a darkened room as a madman with a knife attempted to murder her. Luck and her backup arriving on the scene moments after the altercation are all that saved her.
Now she’s back at work, shakier than she will ever let anyone know. When Frankie is handed a case of a woman found hanging in the bedroom of her pristine Dublin home, she is more than eager to go through the motions and declare it a simple case of suicide. Unfortunately, the facts quickly reveal that isn’t the case. Bruising on the fingers show the victim obviously tried to stop the event but her hand was found dangling at her side; the nature of hanging would have ensured the hand had stayed within the loop it had tried to loosen. The autopsy results are a catalog of horror, filled with poorly healed bones and old stab wounds. There is a mysterious paint covering one of the cuts. All of this points to second party involvement and the victim’s missing husband looks like the likely culprit.
But the investigation proves harder than first glance would have one expect. The body count is growing, the suspect pool is widening, and the victim is proving to be a ‘riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ as Winston Churchill would have said. It’s a race against the clock to stop the terror gripping Dublin and it looks like the killer may just have time on their side.
Originating in the early part of the Twentieth Century, the hardboiled detective is a familiar character to fans of crime fiction. Recent iterations have replaced the relationship-challenged, murky-moralled, world-weary, street-savvy male of yore with a relationship-challenged, murky-moralled, world-weary, street-savvy female. The change hasn’t exactly been noticeable unless you’re a die-hard misogynist. If you’ve seen any of the shows I’ve listed above or read any books that feature a hardboiled detective character, male or female, you’ve met Frankie. She doesn’t waver from the mold.
The people who surround her tend to be straight from central casting as well. Her supervisor, Jack Clancy, is a curmudgeon who acts as a buffer between her and ‘the system’, ensuring that her genius is given the leeway it needs to get the job done. And of course, there is the beloved sidekick, Detective Baz Harwood; more than just a colleague, he’s a true friend. There is also Steve, the tech guru who will come up with just the right piece of evidence at just the right time and Helen, the only other female on her team whom Frankie is trying to raise to be just like her.
The story follows expected paths as well, as everyone talks over ‘startling’ new evidence and doggedly chases down each dead-end lead. Suspects and victims alike behave according to the pattern. If you are acquainted with the genre at all, the whole thing will feel comfortably familiar.
This is, according to the publisher’s blurb, a début novel and that will show on occasion in the language. A few lines, such as “On our yellow brick road the tin man doesn’t want a stinking fucking heart; he wants an AK-47.” managed to pull me out of the text while my brain tried to process the image the author was trying to create. However, the prose is mostly smooth and is written in a manner that balances well with the story. I did feel the identity of the killer came a bit out of left field, but this is less a mystery book than it is a suspense novel. We aren’t building a scenario where reader and detective figure out the puzzle but are taking a walk through a fun house where each corner is laden with new surprises.
My one quibble, which did not affect the grade but that I feel is worth mentioning, is the way the book is marketed. It is labeled as a psychological thriller. Readers might pick it up expecting a Gone Girl or something as chilling as Lisa Gardener’s Right Behind You, or a novel like those Fiona Barton writes. It is none of those things. It’s a noir detective tale, with a creepy atmosphere and a look at the darker side of humanity.
Too Close to Breathe is an ideal book for fans of that genre and it will meet a good number of your expectations. I’ll add that while the author might be considered to be painting by numbers, she does so with enough sophistication and talent that the work she produces is above average. That said, it is too predictable to reach DIK territory, so I have graded it accordingly.