The Therapy House by Julie Parsons is a dark psychological thriller set almost entirely in the Dublin suburb of Dun Laoghaire, chiefly concerning a horrific murder of a retired judge, but also encompassing the killing of a guard by an IRA man forty years before, and touching on the legacy of Civil War feuds, sectarianism, and child abuse.
Retired Garda Inspector Michael McLoughlin has bought an old house in Victoria Square, and which he is trying to renovate. His neighbour is the famous judge John Hegarty, who is brutally tortured and murdered in the opening pages. McLoughlin is the first person to discover the body, having gone into the house to find out why the dog has been incessantly barking for hours, and who ends up getting drawn into the investigation.
He also adopts the dog, Ferdie. Fans of crime novels will recognise a familiar trope: a lonely, hard-drinking cop/private detective finding solace and redemption in the company of Man’s best friend. The dog ends up playing a pretty significant part in various scenes, as Parsons uses the dog’s presence to allow characters to comment on the judge or behave in a particular way.
Being a crime novel set in Dublin, it is inevitable that drugs and gangland criminals make an appearance, as well as the IRA, and while those elements play a part in the plot, Parsons is more interested in psychological wounds and how those wounds motivate. The novel’s title refers to the house that McLoughlin buys, which for many years housed a therapy centre. Elizabeth Fannin is the therapist and former tenant – she and McLoughlin strike up a relationship (actually, it’s a very nicely written and believable relationship, even as Parsons uses it often for the purposes of exposition).
And such exposition! There is a fairly complicated plot, and as with many crime novels, there are coincidences and events that would stretch credulity were it not set in a place like Dun Laoghaire, where everyone seems to know everyone else, and where class and religious differences are of great importance.
I’m not sure that in real life they’re as important as Parsons makes out, but she gets away with sweeping generalisations because much of the novel concerns the past, a time when rich Protestants still referred to the town as Kingstown, had Catholic servants, and where an Irish hero (Dan Hegarty, John’s father), is still revered in certain circles, despised in others.
Once upon a time there was a square in a town. It wasn’t a very big town. It wasn’t a very big square. The town had a harbour and two piers and a ferry which crossed the Irish Sea. It had many churches. Three were Church of Ireland. One was Roman Catholic … It was a happy place. Happy and secure. And everyone knew where they belonged.
And Parsons deserves credit for including the fact that in the 1980s Dun Laoghaire was a notoriously run-down drug-filled area – she does a nice job of contrasting the town’s three important time periods: the 1920s/1930s, the 1970s/1980s, and the Celtic Tiger years and after.
In addition to the judge’s murder, there is another killing, that of McLoughlin’s policeman father in the 1970s by a member of the IRA during a botched bank robbery. McLoughlin knows that his father’s killer is living in Italy and running an Irish bar, but when he goes there intending to confront him, he balks; the shame of not being able to face his father’s murderer haunts him.
Indeed, there is something of a theme of shame running through The Therapy House: no spoilers, but several of the characters feel ashamed of their past, of how some people were forced to live two lives, and much of the novel concerns a time n Ireland when homosexuality was still a criminal offence. Or as one character puts it “it was Pink Triangle territory. Not glad to be gay. Not back then. Keep it hidden. Keep it secret. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t tell anyone.”
Then there is the shame of not quite living up to a father’s legacy, especially when that father is a national hero, “one of the greats. For years to come Dan Hegarty will be revered. The stuff of legend. There are songs, ballads about him. That’s a heavy burden to carry.”
The novel’s other major theme is ‘The Disappeared’ – informers and others who the IRA killed, whose bodies have never been recovered. As one victim is discovered, there’s a rather neat comparison to the famous bog bodies of the Celts:
I’m sorry in some ways he’s been found. At least when he was in the bog he was at peace. He couldn’t be used for propaganda … the archaeologists say the bog bodies were kings who outlived their usefulness. Their magic wasn’t working anymore so they were done away with. But you know it’s all completely speculative. We’ve no evidence about those times, thousands of years ago. Those blokes in the bog, they were never meant to be dug up …Who’s to say they weren’t just gangsters, murderers, rapists, thieves. Chased out of their miserable little villages. Hunted to death.
The Therapy House is a powerful book, more than a mere page-turner, and it dares to ask question about identity, sexuality, patriotism, revenge and remorse that few other crime novels do.