BOOK REVIEW: THE SCHOLAR, BY DERVLA MCTIERNAN
Published by Sphere (March 2019) Brilliance can be deadly …
Brilliance can be deadly …
When Detective Cormac Reilly's girlfriend Emma stumbles across the victim of a hit and run early one morning, he is first on the scene of a murder that would never have been assigned to him.
The investigation promises to be high profile and high pressure: the dead girl is carrying an ID, that of Carline Darcy, heir apparent to Ireland's most successful pharmaceutical company. Darcy Therapeutics has a finger in every pie, including the laboratory where Emma works.
As Cormac investigates, evidence mounts that the death is linked to the lab and, increasingly, to Emma herself.
Cormac is sure she couldn't be involved, but how well does he really know her? After all, this isn't the first time Emma's been accused of murder . . .
I read The Scholar for my book club, although it is exactly the type of thing I typically go for: murder, competition, the ruthlessness of the very successful thrown in with a bit of police procedural and politics … exciting stuff! Or so it should be. I enjoyed this novel, but I was left with some reservations.
I thought setting it in the ruthless world of pharmaceuticals and drug patenting was excellent and an unique take on an otherwise traditional crime thriller. We already know that pharma is an extremely rich and often immoral entity, so it comes as no surprise that some people will crush others in their rush to get to the top. Focusing on the cut-throat behaviour at the level of the student was interesting, rather than at the higher, corporate level (although both elements were in this novel and nicely entwined together).
Detective Cormac Reilly wasn’t an overly developed character, but it must be remembered that he is a character designed for a series, so I imagine we will learn more about him as his series develops. What was intimately revealed of him was his intuitive ability to interview and tease information out of others. His working of the Henderson subplot was insightful and handled with professionalism and sensitivity:
"And the boy finally looked up. Everything Cormac had been hoping for was there in his eyes – Fearghal Henderson wanted a connection. He was smart enough, or damaged enough, to suspect that Cormac might not be telling him the whole truth, but he was still drawn to the story. Cormac had met a lot of abused kids over the years. He knew what they felt – that the stain of their background was indelible, that it marked them as different. Cormac could guess that for Fearghal, meeting someone who’d lived through something similar would feel like making a friend.” (Kindle: Chapter Thirty > Page 201)
Personally, I felt the fact that the book was designed to be part of a series was very obvious throughout. Characters were alluded to as being attractive repeatedly – it’s ok, we get it. Cormac Reilly is supposed to be the handsome, misunderstood detective – perfect fodder for a BBC television drama. The idea it that was written for TV was an on-going distraction. (The repetitive and superficial descriptions of people’s appearances irked my book club – as a group of women we particularly noticed the flat, somewhat sexist descriptions of the female characters, who were often parodic stereotypes).
Without revealing too much, there were good and surprising elements to the plot lines that were unexpected. There were also elements to the plot line that were unrealistic and predictable (the most obvious being the conflict of interest element that would never have been able to happen in real life).
McTiernan attempts throughout the novel to implicate Emma, or make us think that she is implicating Emma, but the red herrings are too obvious and to be honest, her character is so underdeveloped its difficult to even define her, let alone suspect her. Despite being a main witness to a crime, a possible ex-murderer, and the main suspect to every investigating officer except her boyfriend, she plays more of an absent, back seat role.
Many of my book club felt it was obvious from the get go who the main culprit was, and that those characters that ended being the ‘bad guys’ were heavily characterised as such that it came as no surprise that they were implicated in the scandal.
There was also an air of disbelief at main plot lines, such as the university professor’s work being a lie, and how (trying not to give anything away!) students were able to get away with what they did. I don't share their disbelief and The Scholar plot line made me think of the extremely interesting, real life case of Elizabeth Anne Holmes, founder of the now-defunct healthcare company, Theranos (long story short, she built a multi-million dollar healthcare empire off the back of a ‘revolutionary’ blood testing device that did not actually work).
During our discussion of The Scholar in book club it was pointed out that McTiernan accurately highlights the politics of police work in Ireland and in particular the conflict between north and south counties. I am ashamed to admit that I completely missed this and actually forgot that the book and characters were set in Ireland. Neither the political climate of policing in Ireland or the nuances of Irish society came out to me during reading (and I know I shouldn’t compare, but Doug Johnstone’s Breakers captured the taste of a conflicted society perfectly – for me, McTiernan missed the mark with The Scholar). I hands-up admit that this is my personal misjudgment.
Despite my reservations about The Scholar, I am still keen to read author Dervla McTiernan’s debut thriller, The Ruin, and look forward to further works. She has a lovely writing style and I really did love the fact it was centred around academics trying to succeed in the world - at any costs.
If you fancy delving into the ruthless, clinical world of academia and a group of scholars that will stop at nothing to succeed, you can pick up your copy from Amazon.