Can Anybody Help Me? – Sinéad Crowley

Can Anybody Help Me?I didn’t manage to read Sinéad Crowley’s debut crime novel Can Anybody Help Me? when it came out, but I’m glad I finally did. It’s a good, old-fashioned page-turner, powered by  the molten core of a strong ”what if’ concept.

The blurb could really do with five minutes shut-eye:

Struggling with a new baby, Yvonne turns to netmammy, an online forum for mothers, for support. Drawn into a world of new friends, she spends increasing amounts of time online and volunteers more and more information about herself.

When one of her new friends goes offline, Yvonne thinks something is wrong, but dismisses her fears. After all, does she really know this woman?

But when the body of a young woman with striking similarities to Yvonne’s missing friend is found, Yvonne realises that they’re all in terrifying danger. Can she persuade Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself about to go on maternity leave, to take her fears seriously?

Crowley’s first Claire Boyle crime novel asks why we blithely release so much information about ourselves online, placing our trust in virtual strangers. The early part of the book follows Yvonne — a young mother with a high-powered media husband — who moves from London to Dublin.

She’s shattered and lonely and isolated in the new city, and begins to rely on the friendly advice and banter of the other users of the forum, and her experience is mirrored by that of the very pregnant and very feisty Guarda Sergeant Claire Boyle, whose initial cynicism about getting help online dissolves over the course of the book. I like the way that — as mothers, or mothers-to-be — the tangled family histories of both these women impact on their anxieties and relationships.

The intermittent excerpts of conversations between all the women on the forum netmammy — littered with annoying and cliquey acronyms — take on a chilling context when it becomes obvious that hiding behind one of the avatars is a cold-blooded murderer.

Can Anybody Help Me? has a very good sense of time and place, which gives it a bit of daylight between other big city procedurals. Crowley, like other Irish crime writers, makes some wry and rueful observations about the scars left on Dublin in the aftermath of the economic crash — Tana French’s Broken Harbour is a particularly interesting read on that score, if that’s something you’re interested in — and away from the sinister stuff, makes some lovely observations about the competitiveness between mums and about the Dublin media-scene. Her day job is as Arts and Media Correspondent with RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster.

It’s a crime novel which manages the tricky balance of being both chilling, warm and empathetic, and often funny. Crowley’s characters are great, her dialogue is very evocative, and she drops in a great turn of phrase whenever she needs one.

The ending feels a touch rushed, and Yvonne’s role in the narrative, so strong at first, becomes decidedly peripheral as Claire barges her way in to take centre stage, but the revelation of the identity of the murderer is genuinely surprising. Crowley’s book is a fine debut novel, and proof positive that high-concept ideas don’t have to be cold, gleaming things.

And guess what — Sinéad Crowley is going to be giving us the intel on her work later in the week. Look out for that that, so.

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