“Taboo” Casey Hill (Simon and Schuster) – book review

Taboo by Casey Hill book cover

Riley Steel has moved from San Francisco to Dublin to bring the Guarda forensically into the twenty-first century and keep an eye on her father. Her father has returned to his Irish roots after his wife’s departure  and a serious incident involving Riley’s younger sister, Jess. An incident Riley still feels guilt and responsibility for as, at the tender age of eight, she become a substitute mother to Jess and feels she somehow failed.

Riley also has an apparent murder-suicide to deal with where a brother appears to have shot his student sister and then turned to gun on himself. However, trace evidence suggests a link between the apparent murder-suicide and another apparent suicide where the “suicide note” is a quote from Sigmund Freud. There’s also a Freudian link with the apparent murder-suicide and with a subsequent murder. When Riley notices the initial letters of the titles of the books on the student’s bedside table spell out “You[’]re fault”, she realises the murderer is trying to send a personal message.

So far it sounds like a plot from a Patricia Cornwell Kay Scarpetta novel. Unlike Kay Scarpetta though, Riley doesn’t have a computer genius niece or an abrasive police champion.  Instead she’s faced with a Guarda chief who resisted her appointment, a police chief breathing down her police colleagues’ necks for a result  and some of those colleagues regarding her as “too American” for them. Also unlike Kay Scarpetta, Riley is recognisably human and her being singled out by the killer entirely credible.

The only duff note here is an over-quick reference to Riley and Jess’s mother’s “mental health issues”. Periodically, the mother would leave her family for a while with no explanation. Finally she leaves to set up home with another man. Readers never see the relationship between the girls’ mother and her husband, so don’t know what motivated the mother to leave. Later, Jess claims her mother told her the new man was her real dad and asked her to come and live with her “real family” away from Riley and her father. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions as to whether this is a fabrication on Jess’s part or whether she’s telling the truth. The idea that the two girls had different fathers may underline their differences and explain why Riley’s psychological make-up differs from her sister’s, but it’s not necessary. Certainly there’s enough in Jess’s background to justify her actions without the hint she inherited vague, unexplained “mental heath issues” attributed to her mother.

But one duff note doesn’t detract from the main performance. As Riley gets closer, her father goes missing and she has to find the killer to protect her father and restore her own credibility to keep her job. She knows  her outsider status makes her vulnerable and that this case could become the excuse those resistant to her appointment can use to get rid of her.

The characters are identifiably real. Although the pace builds to the climax, it doesn’t do so at one speed. It shifts gears, acknowledges that, as in real life, some days are slow, others are hectic and readers are not  allowed to forget what’s at stake without being constantly reminded. Riley is very likeable. She doesn’t hide her intelligence under false modesty but uses it to facilitate discussions of clues and what they mean. She is aware of how others see her and trusts that hard work and diligence will win detractors over. Riley is open to new ideas and doesn’t dismiss a theory because she knows the person advancing it doesn’t like her. Her primary focus is to assist in solving the case to prevent further deaths.

Note to Marketing Department: thank you for dropping the “there’s a new girl in town” strapline on the ARC. Casey Hill is a husband and wife team so having a strapline that insulted both the author and the writers you were using as comparators, and potential readers (adult females are women) was not a smart move.

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