• Novel Novelist

The Scholar, by Dervla McTiernan


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 thought setting the novel 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 ease information out of others. His working of the Henderson subplot was insightful and handled with professionalism and sensitivity:

“‘Our dad wasn’t the worst. Like, on the face of it, some of our friends were way worse off. He never hit us, wasn’t really much of a drinker. But I still hated being around him. He didn’t like us. I dunno if he ever wanted kids. Dunno if he wanted to get married even.’ Cormac sniffed. ‘I wish he’d made his mind up about that before he landed himself on my mother.’ 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 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).

From the start it was obvious that Reilly was going to be reprimanded for a conflict of interest. His girlfriend, Emma, is the only witness in what turns out to be a murder, for goodness sake. He should never be the senior investigator on such a case and the fact that he was irked me throughout. However, saying this, it did generate some conflict between characters on the investigating team, which added some depth and allowed us to see where team loyalties lay:

“A great deal of her energy, that Monday morning, was taken up therefore with stoking her growing dislike of Cormac. She wasn’t the type to admit to herself that her dislike of him was due almost entirely to the fact that he was asking of her more than she wanted to give, so she cast about to find a more palatable explanation. She found that justification in his running of the Henderson case.” (Kindle: Chapter Seventeen > Page 126)

McTiernan tries 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 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 plots, 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 did not 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 was 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 error, and not one of the author’s.

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.

** Potential Spoiler Warning **

When reading I always extract quotes that I find particular poignant or well-written. I have included these below and citing their page number/Kindle location. Some of these quotes might present spoilers.

Citation (APA): McTiernan, D. (2019). The Scholar: From the bestselling author of THE RUIN (The Cormac Reilly Series Book 2) [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com


Chapter Two > Page 32

‘Very sure,’ said Cormac. His tone did not invite a rejoinder. As far as he was concerned, the conversation was at an end.

Chapter Seventeen > Page 126

from Carrie O’Halloran to Cormac Reilly, and she approved even less of the resulting changes to her comfortable work environment. A great deal of her energy, that Monday morning, was taken up therefore with stoking her growing dislike of Cormac. She wasn’t the type to admit to herself that her dislike of him was due almost entirely to the fact that he was asking of her more than she wanted to give, so she cast about to find a more palatable explanation. She found that justification in his running of the Henderson case.

Chapter Nineteen > Page 140

They sat in silence for another moment. Then Carrie put the car into gear, turned it, and headed back towards the city. The story about Emma was too much to take in … she needed time to think it through. On the one hand, Emma’s injuries and the fact that she was at home minding her own business when the attack took place made it fairly clear that it had been a legitimate case of self-defence. On the other hand, not many people would have the balls to cut a man’s throat. It was so brutal, so final. There was no getting away from the fact that she had actually killed someone. Taken as a whole, did the story really make Emma less of a suspect in the hit-and-run case?

Chapter Twenty-Nine > Page 198

He worried that time was a factor. Whatever had set these events in motion hadn’t yet fully played out.

Chapter Thirty > Page 206

‘All that stuff about routine and chore lists was on the file.’ She’d probably gathered half the evidence herself. ‘You use what you have to use, Moira. You find common ground and you lead them to it until they start talking.’ But there was a flash of fury in her eyes, quickly hidden under hooded eyes, and Cormac ran out of patience.

Chapter Thirty-Three > Page 222

It was all very reasonable, but there was a discordant note in Murtagh’s response. It was too glib. Murtagh spoke as if tidying up after a break-in were a standard part of his day, as unremarkable as picking up his morning coffee. Cormac took the photograph of Della from his pocket for a second time that day, placed it on the table.

Chapter Thirty-Four > Page 225

The place was packed, students loading up on caffeine. They looked very young to him, despite their air of serious endeavour, like children playing shop.

Chapter Thirty-Four > Page 228

‘Rich people commit murder too, Mark,’ Cormac said. ‘They have a couple of things in common, these people who have everything and still feel the need to take a life. The first is that, more often than not, when they finally confess, they give us some convoluted story. They want their reasons to be heard. That’s because deep down, right down to their core, rich people believe that they are different, that they are special. So even when they’re snivelling, having a good cry and telling us all about it, telling us how sorry they are, how much they regret it – even then they really believe that they had the right to do it. Your average gouger, he’ll keep his mouth shut, because he knows what he did was wrong, and that no amount of explanation will change that. The wealthy though, they’re convinced that they have the right to kill, and that if they can just get us to listen, we’ll understand.’

Chapter Thirty-Five > Page 232

Mark let out a breath, making a show of reluctance, but he was more relaxed now. They had come to the point of the interview, as far as he was concerned. He spread his hands, telling this story, getting into the flow of it. He had very little self-awareness, didn’t seem to realise that he was unzipping his own bitterness, leaving it on show.

Chapter Thirty-Five > Page 236

The interview went downhill after that. It was difficult to tell if Mark was lying. He might have been telling the truth, or it might have occurred to him that providing Carline Darcy with an alibi for a murder could be a valuable proposition. He had laid the trail of a theory – Carline and Della in a secret sexual relationship, Della wants to come clean or blackmail Carline, Carline kills her to keep her quiet – then balked at the finish. Cormac couldn’t tell if Mark really hadn’t seen the obvious conclusion to the story he was telling, or if he had rushed up on it in a fit of pique, and only when he was staring it in the face realised what he had done, and the price he would possibly pay. He backtracked where he could, obfuscated where he couldn’t, and resorted to tears when he had no other option. Cormac let him go after an hour.

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