The Accidental Wife by Orla McAlinden

the accidental wife

At the beginning of this set of short stories, Orla McAlinden writes an author’s note which beautifully captures the essence of this book.  After stating that the characters and stories are all fiction she goes on to say:

‘However, the scenarios which fill these pages are familiar to my peers.  We shared the same fears: the stranger in the yard, the late-night knock at the door, the child who leaves home in a school uniform and returns in a closed coffin.  I have not told “your story” except to the extent that your story is also my story, and that the deeds of four dark decades have collectively become our story.’

Well, I can tell you something for nothing – if you are from Northern Ireland, those words are most definitely going to send a chill down your spine and resonate in the strongest imaginable way.

After reading such an eloquent description of her stories, I couldn’t wait to get started, but my fear was whether they would tip over into what can sometimes become a cliched tired view of Northern Ireland, a possibility when writing about the history of this small country.  Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about whatsoever.

Orla McAlinden has written a beautiful book of short stories which perfectly captures the tone, the voice and the lives of those who grew up in the North.  Being from Portadown, she had first-hand experience of life in the north, but her knowledge of farming (not sure where that comes from?!) and her ability to express both rural and city living with such an accurate eye, meant I read these stories repeatedly wanting to shout out – “Yes! Yes! I know exactly what you mean!  Sure, isn’t that just what the north and the people there are like!”

The stories revolve around the McCann family.  The author does a clever interweave of the stories, slowly connecting father and son, wife and daughter, families and communities.  However, the stories can also be read as separate pieces.  McAlinden nails the atmosphere of the troubles with a visceral authenticity which is uncanny.

The opening story ‘Strike’ pulls no punches.  Joan McCann is pulled over by a group of masked hooded men, while taking her son Rory to school.  However, it turns out to be (as do most of her stories) more complex than at first thought – Joan is taking her son to school despite a strike by The Ulster Workers council who have placards stating:

“Ulster Workers Council, No power-sharing, General Strike, In God we Trust.”

When Joan is determined not to be threatened by them, she decides to go about her business as usual, but her values, her religion and her views are shaken by her husband’s rough words and truths that she has been trying to avoid.    A cracker of a story to start this wonderful collection.

The author doesn’t shy away from using cultural references and the language of the people, and it is this that makes this collection unique and memorable.  I am sure for anyone outside of Ireland who reads the collection, they may have to check Google for a couple of references, but it is an education as to what Northern Ireland was like from the seventies to the present day.

The award-winning story ‘The Visit’ is a harsh look at the realities of dealing with paramilitaries and the lengths some people would go to in order to protect their land, their livelihoods and themselves.  Raw and poignant as most of the stories are, this one is particularly sad, when you see that at times good people were forced to take matters into their own hands, and suffering was an inevitable part of that.

My favourite story in the collection is a story entitled ICE.  Told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, it tells the story of how his life changes forever, with the arrival of a PSNI officer to their door.  Their father has gone missing.  It turns out he has run off with 4 million pounds from the client account of Jordan and McCann where he works as a lawyer.  Mark has always minded his mother and his three-year-old sister Siobhan.  ICE stands for ‘In case of Emergency’ which is how Mark’s father’s number is listed in his phone.  As he calls and calls and gets no response, he has to resign himself to the fact that his father is gone.  As his mother falls apart, it is the twelve-year-old Mark who is the only one who seems able to manage the family.  He has had to grow up far too fast (as many children did during the troubles.)  The language in this story is evocative and unbearably sad as Mark talks to his father in his head:

I’m tired Daddy, and I can’t do this on my own. I’m sorry for all the crap I put you through, for all the contradicting and the arguing and the always having to be right. I’m sorry I drove you away.”

As the news breaks, Mark’s family must flee to their Auntie Liz’s house.  We are reminded of the resilience of children as Mark learns to stand on his own two feet. When Liz is putting all the weight and responsibility on Mark he has a dig himself, saying:

“That’s right Liz.  You and me and Mum.  Against the world.” And it was nearly worth it, the whole shitty mess, just to see the blood drain from her face.”

What makes this collection of stories stand out for me and lift it from good to superb, is the use of language.  The Northern Ireland colloquialisms, some that brought a tear to my eye, as I remember my dad used to say them, such as ‘Houl yer whisht’ and  you lazy wee blirt (never said to me I am glad to say!)

The stories are such an authentic portrayal of Northern Ireland, from the middle-class families where appearance is everything, to the struggling farmers whose grit and humour get them through each day. If you want to get a sense of the character and tenacity of Northern Irish people, and the struggles they endured, this is a must read.

‘The Accidental Wife’ is a wonderfully evocative debut of short stories and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  I understand Orla McAlinden’s first novel is set in County Kildare in the 1800s.  I look forward to that, but I am also going to put in a request to the author.  Can we please have more of the Johnson family, especially 12 year old Mark?!


The Mayfly by James Hazel

The Mayfly (1) The Mayfly (buy here on Amazon) 

(If you wish to skip the review – but why would you?! Then please scroll down to see an author interview which gives a fascinating insight into the writing of this novel.)


Every crime fiction series of note that has lasted the test of time has one essential element – a protagonist that the reader can believe in.  A character who will intrigue and with whom we will empathize and wish to see succeed in his mission.  Charlie Priest, the ex-detective inspector turned successful London lawyer, more than ticks these boxes.

The novel follows a complex storyline with many interweaving plot lines, but it is so well structured as to make it easy to follow.  The novel jumps between the present day and a second but equally strong story line that takes place at the end of World War II, involving another complex character – that of Colonel Bertie Ruck.

Bertie Ruck is investigating a Dr Schneider, a Nazi doctor, who was responsible for experimenting on and poisoning prisoners during the war.  The sinister element of the novel begins here and never falters, as Ruck’s life and that of Dr Schneider form an essential part of the modern-day dilemma in which Priest finds himself.

From the start both storylines steam ahead without ever flagging.  However, this is no flimsy action- packed thriller without substance.  For what separates Hazel’s book from many lesser crime fiction novels is the attention to detail and depth of his characters.  Each character is vividly portrayed, as we delve deeply into their world and find ourselves rooting for some and detesting others in equal measure.

Charlie Priest has a family.  His brother William is in a psychiatric ward after committing several murders.  Charlie has not given up on him and visits him once a month.  Charlie suffers from dissociation disorder which means he can suddenly find himself disconnected from reality and unaware of his actions or what is going on around him.  This vulnerability enables him to empathize somewhat with his brother.  For although he can never condone his brother’s actions, he can understand to some extent what it is to be completely out of control of your own mind.

Charlie’s sister Sarah has not been able to come to terms with Will’s actions.  She has wiped all traces of him from her life, but is a strong support to her brother Charlie and is always there for him.  Her daughter Tilly enables us to see Charlie’s softer side when he interacts with his niece.

The family of Charlie and his colleagues at the law firm Priest and Co enable us to anchor the characters in a real setting, so that when the narrative hits the points where we have to suspend our belief, we can still believe in Charlie and his family and friends.

The central theme at the heart of the novel is the evil perpetrated not just during World War II, but by modern day sociopaths who seek fulfilment at any cost.  The story begins with an intruder to Charlie Priest’s house, the step son of a man who runs a large pharmaceutical organization. The intruder is desperately seeking a data memory stick with names on it, about which Priest knows nothing. This episode is only the first step in a complicated investigation that will take all of Priest’s abilities to solve.

The title of the Mayfly is beautifully interwoven into the narrative and takes on a deep significance as the story unfolds.   As the body count mounts, so does the tension, added to the desperate search for the USB stick and the question of its significance.

Fortunately, Charlie has some very smart colleagues to help him.  The smartest, and the heroine of this novel is the intriguing and lovely Georgie Someday.  Smart, sassy and addicted to the thrill of the chase, she is Priest’s right-hand woman and is there for him every step of the way.   As a woman character I loved her grit, her tenacity and her fearlessness.  Yet she reveals enough flaws and weaknesses to make her human.   Whether her last name is a cheeky teaser by the author remains to be seen, but she is too good a character to leave out of future books in my opinion.

The two parallel stories grow in intensity and the level of fear ratchets up as the novel progresses.  The references to the horrors carried out during World War II by Nazi doctors are horrific, and give an insight into the terrifying evils that were perpetrated during the war.  James Hazel pulls no punches and the reader is left in no doubt as to the lengths to which humans will go to satisfy their depravity, all in the name of a completely perverted and utterly warped belief system.

If there was the rare occasion when people seem to coincidentally have the information that Priest required (Sandra Barnsdale for one) it is easy to forgive, given the complexity of the overall plot and the number of characters and storylines.

The final chapters are chilling and thrilling. James Hazel creates utter spine chilling fear with just a few short sentences:

‘Can you scream….?’ He whispered softly.  ‘Can you scream? I hope so.  Because people have paid me a lot of money to hear you scream tonight?’   (I removed the name so as not to give any spoilers.)

This is a heart thumping page turner with a difference.  It has depth.  The characters are brilliantly portrayed and the narrative is beautifully paced and written with intelligence and heart.

I believe there is to be a second novel featuring Charlie Priest. He will be a character who will win a legion of fans for James Hazel, and deservedly so.    A heart stopping, intelligent crime novel.  Most definitely one to watch.


Interview with the Author: James Hazel:

  1. As a reader, what authors did you love to read as a child, and do you think this influenced your later passion for writing?

I remember reading the Chronicles of Narnia series at a young age and just being mesmerised by the sheer enormity of C S Lewis’s world. More importantly, I also remember watching various TV and film adaptations and, for the first time, realising that most things I watched came from books. This was a trigger for me. I don’t think it was necessarily the moment I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but it was certainly the moment when started to realise how important literature was to me.

  1. When did you first become attracted to writing Crime Fiction and why?

I was relatively late to the party and my interest in crime fiction was really kindled by my wife, who is vastly more intelligent and well-read than me. During most of my twenties I was reading horror and supernatural thrillers (the weirder the better) and, whilst I still enjoy the occasional freaky outing, Jo introduced me to crime fiction and I’ve never looked back.

  1. I learnt a great deal about World War II from my father who had a lifelong interest in the war (having lived through it,) so I wondered where your interest in World War II began, and why it became a pivotal part of this novel?

This started when I was five years old and my grandfather started to tell me about his experiences in the war. My mum was called into school one day and asked about him because I’d told all my teachers he was a prisoner. I think I’d triggered a safeguarding alert. In fact, he had been a POW for most of the war Stalag 18A, a POW camp at Wolfsberg, Austria, having been captured in Greece in May 1941.

One particular story he told me still sends a shiver down my spine. On the 28th December 1940, the HMT Orcades arrived at Suez and the troops, Grandad included, were lined up to embark on one of two ships to Greece. Just before boarding, someone who knew Grandad called him over to the other ship: a regiment there needed a driver. He swapped ships at the last minute. It was to become the most important decision of his life. The other ship was sunk and the troops on it were lost to the sea.

A different ship, a different decision, and I would never have been born. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the war, and the role that fate plays in all of our lives.

  1. Your main character Charlie is complex, in that he is both incredibly smart and at times sure of himself, yet also with a uniquely vulnerable side. Where did you draw inspiration from for this character?

Charlie Priest is a mish-mash of people. First and foremost, he isn’t me. I’m not that cool. There’s bits of me in there, a little, but not much. Charlie is kind of the guy I would want to be if I was infinitely more confident and brighter. He’s like a bespoke fictional role model that I drew from various elements of other characters, from James Bond to Sherlock Holmes to Harry Hole and maybe a bit of Luther too.

  1. This novel is a fascinating mix of the past and present. Could you share some insights as to how you came up with the concept for this story?

It’s a difficult process to breakdown but I guess it went something like this:

  • Create an antagonist that everyone will find universally detestable;
  • Confuse the nature of the antagonist through the introduction of a secret society or cult to exacerbate the sinisterism;
  • Give the antagonists a diabolical motivation, something utterly abhorrent so as to really make the reader want to see the hero prevail;
  • Make the secret society a paedophile ring;
  • Abandon the idea of the paedophile ring because it’s been done before and come up with something else. Something worse;
  • Write The Mayfly

6. Could you name three authors who would be among your top ten favourite authors of all time?

Okay, here goes, in no particular order:

Antony Horowitz – because of his breath-taking ability to not only write novels in his own voice but in the voice of other writers who are, on their own merits, masters of the craft

Val McDermid – The queen of crime has few rivals when it comes to her ability to portray the ugly reality of crime but without it ever being overkill

Stephen King – because nobody tells stories like Stephen King. Nobody.

Thank you for your time James.

I think we can all agree this is a fascinating insight into  both the author and his thoughts behind the writing of this novel.   Away and buy your copy now!