Crime Author Brian McGilloway Releases Little Girl Lost

The crime writer sets his latest procedural thriller in Prehen Wood - his mother will be proud

Brian McGilloway loves doing research for his crime novels. It’s evident everywhere in his new book Little Girl Lost – from how psychiatrists handle a little girl who develops selective mutism after witnessing a murder, to micro-details like the description of a Maydown PSNI office, with its tiny windows set high into the walls in case of attack.

In the throes of his writing, he will regularly talk to police specialists, doctors and social workers. During the writing of Bleed a River Deep, he got to visit a gold mine. For his next book, which will touch on the recovery of long-buried remains, he has consulted with experts on the Disappeared. And, of course, he makes extensive use of the internet.

It’s not all plain sailing, though. ‘Last weekend, I found myself researching nappies from the 1970s for my next book. I needed to know about types and brands – a tall order. But, incredibly, when I went online to a nappy site I found someone who knew everything about them. It was all going great until I discovered the reason the guy knew so much about 1970s nappies was that he liked to buy them and wear them himself...’

Despite this near-obsession with specifics, McGilloway – who in his day job is Head of English at St Columb’s College, Derry~Londonderry – also has the rare ability to deliver complex minutiae without having his readers reach for an encyclopaedia.

But it’s his use of detail to build atmosphere, pace and dramatic tension (Little Girl Lost was described as ‘truly chilling’ by Ann Cleeves) that has the smart money predicting he’s going to make the crossover to television before long.

Little Girl Lost, indeed, has already been optioned for TV, and his editors seem confident that this will be the breakthrough book for him. Speaking at the Derry launch Will Atkins, a Macmillan crime fiction specialist, said they were thrilled to be publishing a novel that exudes such a ‘tremendous sense of place’ and ‘wonderful sense of character’.

Traditional McGilloway fans might initially have been alarmed to learn that the central character isn’t Donegal Garda, Ben Devlin, who stars in his first four books – but instead a Derry-based PSNI sergeant named Lucy Black.

But – and yes, it’s a subjective call – it has to be said that the new work is by a mile the most gripping McGilloway book so far. This reader sat down with a plan to scan the first chapter and didn’t look up until 212 pages later.

It’s quite a departure for the author – both hopping the border back into his native city and writing a woman lead. But he succeeds entirely on both fronts. ‘I was told I’d have to get in touch with my feminine side,’ he laughs. ‘Others suggested I wouldn’t have far to look! In seriousness, my wife Tanya was very helpful. She read it as I was going along and was able to tell me what a woman wouldn’t say or do or think.’

The present-day Derry of Little Girl Lost is an improving place coming to terms with its dark past. But into this mix, McGilloway has explored the ‘postponed pain’ of the city, personified by little Alice, whose reaction to her suffering is delayed until the numbness begins to wear off.

The ancient Prehen wood – the focus for much of the action – lends the book an ethereal and slightly sinister edge, but ultimately there is magic and redemption to be found there too. ‘All the best fairytales are set in woodland in winter... I hope my parents are proud that finally I have a book set in Prehen that contains no swearing and no prostitutes. It’ll be the first and only time.’

Little Girl Lost – while conceived initially as a standalone detective novel – is now set to spark a Lucy Black series in its own right. Next year, however, Devlin fans will be happy to see him return in a book that centres on the unearthing of a child’s remains in a cillín (unmarked grave) during the dig for a Disappeared victim.

The book’s working title is Isle of Bones and McGilloway has the first draft ready. ‘The plot hinges on the idea that any evidence uncovered during a search for the Disappeared can’t be used in a criminal prosecution. So, in this case, when the child’s remains are recovered, they can’t be forensically examined, which forces Devlin to go back to using old-fashioned detective techniques.

‘Ultimately, it’s about cases when justice can’t be delivered and when people get away with their crimes. And at another remove, it is also commenting on those who got away with bankrupting the [Irish] state.’

As a writer trying to assert his presence on the international scene, McGilloway is keenly conscious of the peripherality of Ireland – and the Northwest – within the broader European context. But he believes that Derry’s forthcoming City of Culture year will provide a fantastic opportunity to showcase the city.

McGilloway is involved with a number of other artists in planning a ‘Guys and Dolls’, chick-lit meets crime-writers, convention in the city as part of the 2013 festivities.

‘People here are aware of how much talent there is in the Northwest – but we’re also to the very far north of an island that is to the very far west of Europe. Sometimes we forget how isolated we are. But I’m optimistic that the City of Culture festival will give us a great chance to get the wider world to pay attention to us.’

The City of Culture 2013 year will also, McGilloway hopes, see the publication of the second Lucy Black novel. In the meantime, Little Girl Lost is already making major waves for him. Two chapters of it were issued free in e-book form, along with a McGilloway short story this week, and the bundle raced immediately to Number 1 in the Amazon Kindle Store’s Top Free 100.

Plus, to cap a good month for him, Requiems for the Departed, a collection of Irish crime stories – which includes an Inspector Devlin short – won a Spinetingler Award for best international anthology.

Best of all, perhaps, is the news that the father-of-four has finally, and for all time, seen off the McGilloway Curse. ‘Up until now, every time I published a book, I also had a new baby,' McGilloway explains. 'I think I finally broke it by not writing about Devlin this time. And trust me, that curse is now broken for good!’