There are few things I enjoy more than cracking the binding on an author's debut novel. THE PRIEST by Gerard O'Donovan comes with advance heralding that would have given the Silver Surfer a run for his money. Having read the book from cover to cover in one sitting, I am here to tell you that the praise is richly deserved.
THE PRIEST is set in Dublin (Ireland, not Ohio), and the draw of the story is the manner in which O'Donovan sets up the contrasts between the ancient beauty of the city and its contemporary modern misery. The street guide for this is Mike Mulcahy, an Irish narcotics investigator with a tangled history. After an assignment in Spain that ended in a series of vague personal and professional setbacks, Mulcahy is back in Dublin biding his time and waiting to be reassigned to a position with the narcotics division. These plans get derailed when a manpower shortage results in Mulcahy being assigned to the brutal and horrific sexual assault of the daughter of a foreign ambassador. Mulcahy does not fit well into the investigative unit and quickly develops a prickly relationship with his superior and her sergeant, who secretly bears a grudge against him.
The rough edges are exacerbated when, after a number of other attacks, a suspect --- who has come to be known as The Priest --- is identified and arrested. Mulcahy is adverse to jumping on the bandwagon, feeling that the arrest is an ill-advised rush to judgment. His quiet and continued investigation into the attacks raises the ire of his superiors not only in the sex crime divisions but also in his home unit. To make matters worse, there is an apparent leak in the unit directly to a successful investigative reporter with whom Mulcahy has developed a personal relationship. Even though he has told her nothing, he is blamed for the leak, making his position even more tenuous. The reporter finds herself the target of a series of mysterious phone calls that could be from either a crank or the real attacker. Mulcahy's own investigation results in some uneasy alliances and a race against a deranged attacker whose motives are hidden in the mists of time, but who is an immediate threat not only to Mulcahy but also to those for whom he cares.
O'Donovan nicely balances character and plot during the course of THE PRIEST, moving the investigation along while keeping the focus on the brooding Mulcahy, a somewhat mysterious but always interesting figure. The reader is dropped into Mulcahy's very involved life at its mid-point, creating the feeling that there is much that has yet to be told. There were a number of times when I had the impression that I was reading a new novel in a long-running series rather than a debut. Mulcahy's history is not entirely vague by story's end, but much needs to be revealed. I'm sure that, with future installments in the series, we will come to know more. THE PRIEST is an addictive beginning by an author who is positioning himself as a major talent.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 25, 2011