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A dreary Dublin is backdrop for gripping thriller

Writing about crime in Ireland attracts well-known writers. Successful Irish novelist John Banville writes crime fiction under a pseudonym, Benjamin Black. Even Liam O'Flaherty wrote a "crime dime" back in 1932, "The Puritan."

No surprise then to have Gerard O'Donovan enter the fray with his Inspector Mike Mulcahy.

O'Donovan writes tight and light, with not much background music in the way of character development. His stuff is TV-adaptable, likely to end up there as a series. You might guess that a novel called "The Priest" taking place in Dublin these days isn't about personal holiness. One need only read the Murphy and Ryan Reports written by the Dublin Archdiocese, as resources for the clerical scandal that has engulfed Ireland and the shape of reform that is needed.

Nevermind that the "priest" in the title of Gerard O'Donovan's novel who allegedly commits sexual attacks and murders turns out not to be a priest. These days, facts do not matter.

The crimes, we find out, are committed instead by a gent named Rinn, who's spent years teaching abroad and has a record of schizophrenia and abuse.

Finding this out is the work of the Garda, or Irish constabulary. Mulcahy is back from a stint in Madrid with Europol as a drug specialist. Be aware that Interpol and Europol are engaged in a nominally friendly competition to help national authorities solve crimes.

Interpol, the older organization run capably by Ronald K. Noble, an American, has 188 member countries.

Mulcahy is called by his boss, Superintendent Brendan Healy, to help investigate the brutal assault on the Spanish Minister of the Interior's daughter, Jesica Mellado Salazar. Jesica is visiting, taking a four-week English course in Dublin.

While returning alone to her boarding house from a night of dancing at the GaGa Club, near Stillorgan, she is violated and left for dead by her attacker on the grassy verge of a residential roadway.

Mulcahy speaks Spanish. This is a help to Claire Brogan, who has the lead in the case, because she can't communicate with Jesica.

Brogan is a comer on the fast track for promotion. Mulcahy doesn't see sex crimes as his turf. The two don't get along. Along the way, Siobhan Fallon, chief reporter for the Sunday Herald, helps Mulcahy sort things out. They are attracted to each other for a second time, having earlier met when Siobhan wrote about a drug case that Mulcahy broke.

The weapon of choice of the apparently deranged attacker, called "the priest", is a crucifix used to brand his victims. Jesica tells Mulcahy in Spanish that "He made a sign of the cross. Like a priest." Also, she reported that her attacker said something about "hellfire, a flaming sword and the vengeance of God" before burning her.

Parts of present-day Dublin, the locus of the attacks, are dreary and soiled. Mulcahy describes the city. "The new loaded Dublin bore little resemblance to the one he'd grown up in, and now the bottom was falling out of it, he could see the old city beginning to reassert itself. Thousands of flats stood empty and tenantless, impossible to sell And just a couple of streets back, (Mulcahy) knew the smackheads and crackheads, the burglars and muggers, were all still there, waiting their time in the cycle No amount of fancy new apartment blocks could change that."

There are some phrases that don't easily translate for American readers: a "grass" is a snitch, the Luas (meaning "speed" in Irish) is the light rail tram system that glides through Dublin, the RTE is the national news service. The author gave up the Irish civil service and worked, we are told, as a barman, bookseller, gherkin-bottler, philosophy tutor and English teacher before working as a journalist for the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph. He has written a book whose chapters are clear and cogent as well as unpredictable. Not a bad thing, if you like reading crime fiction.

Michael D. Langan, is a retired U.S. Treasury Department enforcement official whose beat for a time was international crime. He carries two passports, those of the United States and the Republic of Ireland.

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The Priest

By Gerard O'Donovan

Scribner

304 pages, $25

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