The Dead Eight, By Carlo G&#233;bler<br />Missing Julia, By Catherine Dunne

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The Independent Culture

Carlo Gébler has already proved himself adept as a novelist in taking infamous episodes from Ireland's past and looking at them with modern eyes. The Cure and How To Murder A Man both revived 19th-century murders, drew readers into these complex human dramas, and explored the social, historical and emotional contexts of the crimes. The Dead Eight sees him returning to this fertile field, but at a stage much nearer to today: Eamon De Valera's claustrophobically Catholic Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1941, Harry "Badger" Gleeson, a farmer from New Inn, Co Tipperary, was tried, found guilty and hanged for the murder of his near neighbour, Moll McCarthy, an unmarried mother of seven known locally as "Foxy Moll" on account of her red hair and freedom with her sexual favours. He had found her mutilated body in a field between their properties.

Many believed Gleeson to be innocent, though few spoke up in his defence for fear of being associated with McCarthy's "immoral" ways. A campaign to have him awarded a posthumous pardon has continued ever after.

As a writer-in-residence at one of Northern Ireland's prisons, Gébler is clearly attracted to bigger questions of justice. So he invents a narrator – McCarthy's grandson, examining his own roots – and brings Foxy Moll vividly and convincingly to life, both as the product of her upbringing (the daughter of a mother who saw sex as simply an economic exchange of goods) and as a romantic who still hoped that the right one among her men would marry her. Yet Moll had been taught by life to be a realist. She had learnt to cope with disappointment each time she fell pregnant and her suitors returned to their wives.

Equally arresting are Gébler's portraits of the men in her life, especially Johnny (JJ) Spink, the devilishly charismatic local Republican agitator, vain enough to be fond of wearing jodhpurs, who ruled his semi-criminal network ruthlessly. Moll had high hopes that he would stick by her, even after he had shown himself as faithless as all the rest. When a police officer, Anthony Daly, arrives in New Inn to target JJ and his gang, and immediately falls for Moll, she is caught between two lovers whose only true emotion is self-interest.

Gleeson is just the kind-natured, unworldly soul who happens to be nearest when someone has to take the blame. The picture that Gébler paints of the entire Irish establishment – from police to courts to priest to public opinion – is as damning as anything his mother (Edna O'Brien) has ever produced about her homeland. The only ones who have the courage to stand up to the amoral machine that crushes Moll and Badger are the outsiders – Miss Cooney, last scion of the local Ascendancy family, stripped of influence since Irish independence, and Gleeson's employers, who have spent time in America.

If this was what went on in a rural village at a time when the Church had a special place in the constitution, then modern Ireland is arguably well rid of Catholicism. The exodus from the pews, and the destruction of the moral authority of the clergy, have been precipitated by the scandal of clerical sex abuse, but The Dead Eight would suggest the loosening of religion's stranglehold was slowly coming to the boil in the hypocrisy of Foxy Moll's day.

But what is left behind, especially when addressing those agonising ethical choices that most of us pray we will never have to face? That is the question posed by Irish novelist Catherine Dunne in Missing Julia. Her central character, a decent, thoughtful and admired Dublin doctor, suddenly vanishes. When her partner, William, begins to look behind the façade of their happy life together, he gradually finds that Julia has been in an ethical no-man's-land and forced to invent her own moral compass.

Dunne hit the headlines a few years ago as "Mrs Berlusconi's favourite novelist". When the Italian prime minister's wife publicly dumped her slippery husband, she said she felt like "a character in a Catherine Dunne novel, half of nothing" (the title of one of Dunne's earlier books). It made for great theatre, but Dunne is a novelist of substance. Her evocative prose has much in common with Gébler's. Together, you might see them as providing a before-and-after picture of Ireland, each half equally compelling.

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