A Lockdown Mystery

‘All this happiness on display is suspect,’ thinks Henry Perowne in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, set during the 2003 march against the Iraq war. ‘Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other.’ 

I felt something similar when the first COVID-19 lockdown was declared in March 2020. Obviously, people weren’t out on the streets hugging each other, but there was the same kind of performative merriment, an atmosphere McEwan described as ‘innocence and English dottiness.’ Sourdough bread, Joe Wicks, handwashing songs, working from home in your PJs… all this happiness on display is suspect, I thought. 

For most people in the media, on social media, the greatest hardship of lockdown was having to homeschool the kids. But what about the people who weren’t invited to the Zoom party – people living in substandard accommodation in tower blocks or damp-infested council terraces, people isolated from green spaces and meaningful activity, people for whom work is a refuge and the pub a haven? 

Nancy Jo Sales in her dating book Nothing Personal reflected that ‘When shelter-in-place orders were issued for COVID-19, the news became filled with stories about a rise in domestic violence all over the world. I couldn’t stop thinking about the women and children who were trapped inside with their abusers.’

Which leads me in a roundabout way to Catherine Ryan Howard‘s brilliant concept thriller 56 Days. It starts in Dublin in the runup to the first Irish lockdown. Ciara is new to the city, doesn’t know anyone, but by luck she meets handsome and professional Oliver in a supermarket queue. The two click instantly, a whirlwind courtship ensues, and she moves in with him… just as the government declares lockdown. What could possibly go wrong?

It is a marvellous premise of two people who click but don’t really know each other, who find themselves overcommitted to each other… only, one of them is a sociopath. Oliver won’t talk about his past at all, or family, or friends: he prefers, he tells Ciara, the blank slate. He follows the COVID-19 rules to the letter, because he doesn’t want to get in trouble, doesn’t want to be hospitalised by the virus, because this is a man who wants nothing to do with the state, in any form. He even bans Ciara from sitting out on the balcony. 

When lockdown ends, the police break into Oliver’s flat to find a dead body inside it.

Howard writes in her afterword that ‘In the early days of this pandemic, many writers took to social media and elsewhere to vow that they would never write about this in their books, that once this was over no one, including them, would ever want to think about it again.’

In several ways this is a good thing. I remember a lot of publishers and literary journals closed their lists to anything COVID related, because everyone was sick of living this thing, never mind reading about it. And it takes time for great events to be mediated in imagination and memory. ‘You must let it weave and trickle through you,’ Martin Amis said.

But it would be a real shame to miss Howard’s marvellous displays of observation, of how people gradually accommodate the unseen killer. The dance of social distancing when you walk past someone on a narrow pavement, the jolt of fear when you touch a pedestrian crossing, the knuckle callouses of constant hand-sanitising, the slowly emptying cities, the new, small, learned behaviours – Howard brings those shaky early months of the pandemic to life. It takes time. On Patrick’s Day the bars are open but the parade’s been called off and there’s ‘a guy in his late teens wearing a mask, holding his phone in front of his face while he spun around to offer the lens a three-sixty view of the streets behind him. In what sounded like a German accent he was narrating the scene, pointing out that he was the only one wearing a face-covering. At the time, he’d struck Ciara as a bit of an alarmist.’

Howard deftly captures the Dublin of young professionals. When temperatures soar, Oliver and Ciara walk along the canal for a picnic: ‘The waterside paths are thronged with people and pets strolling, and wherever there’s a patch of grass or somewhere to sit and swing your legs out over the water, pale limbs and heads thrown back in laughter have already gathered around collections of supermarket bags filled with cans.’ You almost start to believe in the lockdown fantasy of bourgeois Instagram. But round the next bend of the river, they find a navy ship, with people in hazard moonsuits ‘using the spraying devices on their backs to hose down surfaces with what has to be disinfectant.’ They are making a morgue, a Flying Dutchman of COVID-19. 

56 Days is a baggy novel in the crime fiction style and the breathless present-tense style doesn’t always hold with the length of this story. But there are enough twists to keep your attention as the ugly truth of Oliver and Ciara’s relationship is slowly revealed, like a gradually looming iceberg. It’s also fun to watch the exhausted, bickering Garda detectives try to make sense of the whole messy mystery. 

If we do have another lockdown – I expect, and hope not – Catherine Ryan Howard’s novel would be a great way to kill a few days of it. 

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