Twisty legal thriller The Murder Rule grips you until its riveting finale

There’s nothing quite like a good theatrical showdown at the end of a legal thriller for a satisfying conclusion. You know it well, that dramatic final scene when the defence and prosecution square off against each other in court while the guilty watch helplessly on as the last-minute revelations unfold and the cheers break out as the comeuppance becomes inevitable.

I am, therefore, happy to report that Dervla McTiernan stages an excellent finale to The Murder Rule that hits all the right marks. But that’s not all. The Murder Rule is also a psychological thriller about the lies people tell and the consequences these may have for those who believe them. Let’s start with third-year law student Hannah Rokeby, who we first encounter in an email exchange. Hannah wants to join the Innocence Project, a legal centre at the University of Virginia that involves students in the admirable quest to free those who have suffered a miscarriage of justice and have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Politely knocked back, Hannah reveals her cunning by obliquely threatening to reveal the director’s amorous indiscretions with a former pupil. This seems to work, and Hannah duly gets the gig only to discover that she is being engaged not because the boss is bothered by her threats, but because he recognises in Hannah someone who is willing to go above and beyond to get what she wants.

What Hannah really wants is justice for her alcoholic and demanding mother, Laura, who is living in Maine. Laura has entrusted to Hannah an improbably detailed and vivid diary recounting how as a teenager she fell in love with the man who would become Hannah’s father while working as a cleaner at a holiday resort. Here we learn that Hannah’s father was subsequently murdered before she was born.

Passages from Laura’s diary written in the first person punctuate the events unfolding in the present in ways that link Hannah’s involvement with the Innocence Project to her mother’s ill-fated romantic liaison. It’s a familiar gambit but effectively managed.

McTiernan makes it more interesting in that Hannah is hard to like. Witnessing her outsmart and out-manoeuvre her fellow law students while simultaneously questioning her motives for doing so, is a tad uncomfortable. Although we may not approve, it is glaringly apparent that she is indeed the most resourceful member of a team that is reinvestigating a case that put a man in prison 14 years ago for the rape and murder of a young woman. Hannah’s good at what she does, although her motives become increasingly questionable.

In the end, it is Hannah’s evolution as a character that is the most intriguing aspect of a narrative that keeps getting twistier. As Hannah learns to work with, and to eventually trust, the other members of her team, she is inexorably travelling towards the truth that will upend her world forever. It will be the making of her.

Set in the United States where McTiernan herself spent a summer volunteering as a law student, The Murder Rule marks a departure in terms of both genre and setting from the author’s previous three police procedurals set in Ireland. As a former lawyer, McTiernan knows her legal stuff but is never didactic. Instead, she keeps things moving, and fast. Even more intriguing is the fact that the Innocence Project really does exist and there’s one in Australia too. Could this be a new series?

Complex, unsettling and relentless, with a female protagonist on a journey of self-discovery that will culminate in a riveting final act, The Murder Rule is a great read.

The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan is published by HarperCollins, $32. 99

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