Dervla McTiernan leapt to prominence in the Australian crime writing scene with her multi-award winning debut The Rúin, set in Ireland. That book, and the two that followed, centred around detective Cormac Reilly. In The Murder Rule, McTiernan tries something different. This is an American legal thriller and courtroom drama that uses as its focus the very real Innocence Project, a group dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions.
When The Murder Rule opens, protagonist Hannah is blackmailing her way onto the Innocence Project, run out of the University of Virginia, a group comprised mainly of volunteer university students. And while the reasons for her being accepted are not quite as she believes, Hannah manages to get a place with the Project. But what she really wants is to get onto the much smaller team helping run a high profile appeal against the conviction of Michael Dandridge. And it soon becomes clear that this is so she can sabotage the work and ensure Dandridge stays in prison. And Hannah will pretty much do anything to get her way. Hannah’s connection with Dandridge and this particular case is initially unclear but slowly becomes explained in carefully doled out entries from her mother’s diary.
Most people reading legal thrillers know that the criminal law system does not run in quite the way it is described on the page. But McTiernan takes liberties with the system and how it should work such that even not knowing the actual detail it is hard to suspend disbelief. All of which builds up to the completely fantastical final act courtroom scene. And all of this in a plot driven by a series of twists that readers of this genre are likely to see coming from a long way off.
Plenty of Australian crime authors are moving into territory well populated already by American crime writers. The danger is that there is already a huge body of great courtroom thrillers from some of the biggest names in the publishing – Turow, Grisham and Connelly to name a few. While The Murder Rule may scratch an itch for lovers of this type of narrative, it does not reach those heights.But The Innocence Project does important work and as the centre of a crime series is potentially a great engine for interesting stories. So while this book does not use this setting as effectively as it could, now that the main characters have been established there is definitely scope for some interesting sequels.