For a first novel, Too Close to Breathe is a real killer. Dublin's Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan tackles a complicated case while also taking time to testify against a man who attacked her while engaged in a murder. Frankie can't stand the idea of being a victim but has to endure the feeling each time she testifies. She is determined to speak for his victim, so she does what's required, always eager to return to her active cases. The current cas--a hanging--seems at first a suicide. But soon the death of Eleanor Costello is ruled instead to be a homicide. Despite the scar that still throbs along her temple, an angry reminder of how close she came to death, Frankie dives into Costello's life, assigning members of her team to gather information to shape the direction of the case. Then another murder occurs, this one close to Sheehan's family, a young woman she's known for years found burning in a Halloween bonfire.
Sheehan is an appealing protagonist, a do-or-die detective with great instincts. While Assistant Commissioner Jack Clancy gives Sheehan plenty of room to pursue her investigations, he worries for her safety and about her troubling impulse to get too close to her cases. Frankie's retort: "Too close is not nearly enough to stop me." It is this compelling passion that makes Frankie Sheehan a fascinating character. She's tough on her team, but they perform, understanding the need for information scrawled on their murder board. Whether giving Clancy a report or meeting Detective Baz Harwood at the local pub to hash over what they know, Sheehan is always present, always thinking, putting people and facts together.
Kiernan writes with a sure hand, building both characters and place, from Costello's austere house and life in academia to the agony of speaking to the grieving parents of the murdered girl, Amy Keegan, a couple broken by the loss of a child. Kiernan's use of language is a surprise: besides the vivid imagery of crime scenes and victims, the city comes alive, the phrasing lifting the thriller from the usual stark reality of crime stories to an awareness of the life around brutal scenes, the wild beauty of the country, the weather providing its own element of drama. It's in the way Frankie imagines her victims, recreates them without the damage, a restored Eleanor Costello accompanying the detective as she walks through the victim's home and inspects her office. As the suspects and bodies increase, Frankie imagines both victim and perpetrator, "her panic-soaked breath," the unmistakable scent of human flesh mixed with smoke from a bonfire.
Unmanned by the stress of testifying against her attacker at the beginning of the story, Frankie struggles to master that sense of vulnerability, fearlessly--sometimes foolishly--following her instincts to the heart of darkness where the killer may be found. From the discovery of the first victim to the terrifying recognition of a monster masquerading as a reasonable human, Sheehan follows where her instincts lead, balancing truth and lies, fear and contempt, whether interrogating a suspect or brainstorming with her team at a crucial juncture in the case. Frankie Sheehan is a fully fleshed character in a country rife with wild beauty and its fair share of human suffering. I can't wait for the next one.