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What Happened to Nina? (Dervla McTiernan) – book review

Following the award-winning Cormac Riley crime fiction series set in Ireland, Australian crime author Dervla McTiernan turned her attention to the United States. Her first novel set there was The Murder Rule, a courtroom/crime thriller based around the Innocence Project which was not all that successful. Her follow up, What Happened to Nina?, is something else again. It’s not quite a thriller, more a dive deep into modern crime culture, and what happens when social media gets involved.

Readers of What Happened to Nina may suspect from the end of the prologue what has happened to the titular character. Nina has returned home to spend time with her longtime boyfriend Simon. They have been apart since starting college and the distance has exacerbated Simon’s jealous and controlling tendencies to the point where Nina wants to end the relationship. They go away for a weekend of climbing at Simon’s family’s holiday house. Nina does not come home but Simon does and claims that they broke up and he left her alone at the house. The rest of the book follows the police investigation but McTiernan is much more interested in the actions of the parents and it is from their actions that the twists and turns emerge.

The thriller element of What Happened to Nina? is getting readers to wonder if the process will ever get to the truth. McTiernan is particularly interested the impact of media and social media and its capacity to fill gaps in knowledge and turn speculation into fact. Simon’s wealthy parents in particular weaponise social media to “muddy the waters” and throw suspicion onto Nina’s mother and step-father. What Happened to Nina? is if anything an indictment on society’s fascination with crime and propensity to think the worst of people and believe anything the internet tells them. It is also a cautionary tale about just letting investigators get on with their job as the actions of both families impede the investigation itself.

A quick internet search will reveal that What Happened to Nina? is loosely based on a real case (the 2021 Gabby Petito/Brian Laundrie case in the U.S). But whatever her influence, McTiernan jumps off from that to deliver a scary insight into the way crime is handled by the media and social media. And despite the fact that there’s no great mystery here, McTiernan still manages to generate a fair amount of tension and some game changing twists in the way the narrative plays out.

Robert Goodman
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed

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