Brian McGilloway’s earlier work, The Last Crossing, published in 2020 and nominated in 2021 for Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, was his first standalone novel, departing from his established, and bestselling, Lucy Black and Benedict Devlin series. That book was a beautiful, devastating story of regret and revenge caught in a lens of lost years. In The Empty Room, his second standalone story, similar emotional ground is trod, but here the loss and pain is immediate, abiding and exposed, as a mother loses her only daughter, only to have the search to find her again bring down all the pillars of the life they shared around them.
Dora Condren wakes one day to find her 17 year old daughter hasn’t come home. By the end of the mythical ‘first 72 hours’ in which most missing persons who will be found have been found, Dora is still mostly in the dark about what’s happened to her child and yet has seen so many other secrets about her life and those closest to her come out that her world is in ruins. From this point, Dora’s need to find answers for herself at literally any cost, propels a story about the choking reality of grief, of how badly we deceive ourselves to avoid the truths we cannot bear, and the precarious place that hope occupies in the maelstrom that tragedy brings with it.
The horror of Dora’s experience is how inescapable it is, despite the many apparent avenues to solving the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance. The tragedy of it is how, in the absence of anyone else to blame, she finds such bottomless capacity to visit punishment on herself. The setup is familiar and, in a way, simple, but the impact is no less profound for how much we might anticipate each step of this terrible process.
Dora is rendered with a deft mix of humanity and brutality, and the procedural bones of this very character driven crime story are no less sturdy for the shift in focus from investigator to victim.
This is another exceptional book from a writer with extraordinary ability, and I cannot recommend it enough.
The Empty Room comes out on March 31st and you can preorder it here.