Too Close to Breathe

Olivia Kiernan

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Too Close to Breathe, a debut mystery from Olivia Kiernan, part of the new wave of Irish crime writers taking over the international crime fiction scene. In this opening sequence, a forensic scientist looks into a suspicious suicide, setting the stage for a procedural mixed with domestic suspense and concerned with contemporary Irish life.

There hadn’t been a suicide note. The victim remains resolutely tight‑lipped, stone‑cold silent; the best and the worst witness of her end. A note would allow mourners to hold on to something. Assert blame. Be angry at what’s written. Tear the fucking thing up if they wanted. Without it, there is nothing. Grief battles alone. Even so, I imagine I see a ghost of a smile at the corners of her swollen mouth, the kind of smile that speaks of secrets. Secrets she’ll take to the grave. The narrow‑faced pathologist begins the autopsy. She walks the length of the victim’s body, reporting her findings in clipped, clinical tones.

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“Time of death: approximately 20:00, 19 October 2011. Cause: suspected asphyxiation by hanging. Manner of death: pending. Victim: thirty‑nine years old, female. Autopsy performed by Dr. Abigail James; also present, Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan and Assistant Commissioner Jack Clancy.”

We are in Whitehall. Dublin city’s state‑of‑the‑art supermortuary. The viewing area is fondly nicknamed “the Waiting Room,” a sour reminder that there’s a good chance of ending up on some pathologist’s chopping block one day.

I look down on the doc. She’s peering into the victim’s mouth, a penlight in her hand. She’s another unfamiliar face—the doc. Another adjustment. Although change is fair game when you’ve been away for months, it makes me feel cheated.

“She’s new.”

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Jack Clancy stays focused on the victim below. He sticks his hands in his pockets, rocks on his heels. “Still as sharp as ever, I see. I hope your detective skills aren’t as diabolical as your observation skills, Sheehan.”

“See that?” I point to a half‑drunk cup of coffee, smiling. “Unfinished. No lip till that mug’s empty. What happened to the last guy?”

“He fecked off to Australia, like the rest of the bloody country,” he says.

“Detective Harwood?” “Back at the office.”

“I thought he’d moved to Special?” “Ballistics.”

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“What happened? Couldn’t keep away?” I flash a smile at him.

A cloud of worry grows behind Clancy’s eyes. When he speaks, every part of his face joins in: His eyebrows punch up, down; his mouth flattens, puckers; and the skin trembles over his jawline.

“We had to move some staff around, Frankie. Your team, intimidated as they are, turn out to be as loyal as beaten dogs, but we don’t have another detective at your level to work with you.”

“I prefer to work alone,” I reply.

The remainder of my coffee is a cold sludge of half‑dissolved sugar, about as welcoming as the day began and as predictable as it would continue.

I bring the subject back to terra firma. “What are we doing here for this fluff then? We’re a bit much for an open‑and‑shut suicide.”

The expression on his face tells me he doesn’t think I’m much for anything at the moment. I straighten. Meet his eyes.

“The coroner had an uneasy feeling about this one,” he answers. He raises an eyebrow at the phrase “uneasy feeling.” “The commissioner is twitchy.”


He doesn’t answer. “About me?”

Silence. There is a tang of bile at the back of my tongue.

“Fuck ’em.” I glance sideways at him, hoping to see some agreement in his face, but his mouth remains a hard line, his eyes forward.

After a while, he speaks: “What are you thinking then?”

“Of the victim?”

He sighs. “The suspect.”

“Now that’s a philosophical question.” A tight grin. “You obviously don’t think this is simply a plain old ‘I’m checking out of this shit hole by myself’ job?”

His shoulders shift beneath his jacket. “There is always that.” I turn. The doc, Abigail, is narrating the woman’s story:

“The cranium is intact, no sign of fracture. There is a right lateral shift of the occiput on C1, which is compatible with significant upper‑cervical‑spine displacement from hanging. Lateral C spine radiological examination shows bilateral pars interarticularis fracture, or hangman’s fracture, which suggests a sudden drop of the body onto the rope.”

“Seems to be the death of choice these days,” Clancy says from over my shoulder.

I’m aware that at some point during Abigail’s postmortem, my hand has moved to my neck. Mouth tight, dry, my breath still and small in my chest.

I swallow, and the walls of my throat stick together. “You know, it’s still an unusual choice for a woman. More of a man’s death.”

Clancy is tense. I can feel it rippling from him in waves.

I cough, try to sound like I’ve got my game face on: “Historically, when women kill themselves, they tend to use less immediate methods such as pills or blades. Hanging, although not uncommon, is not usually their first mode of exit.” I throw in a smile for good measure.

Clancy steps up to the window, looks down on the victim in the room below.

“Maybe this wasn’t her first choice,” he says.

“Maybe.” I lean on the intercom. “Dr. James? What’s on the left arm there?”

Abigail glares up at the window.

I let out a brief whistle of air. “Someone doesn’t like breaking out of her routine.”

Clancy nods permission at the doctor, and with stiff shoulders she moves down the body and continues to narrate her findings.

“On the left forearm, just distal to the cubital fossa, there is a linear cut through the skin, appears to have been created with a very sharp instrument like a razor blade. There is dark coloring along the edges of the skin. Maybe an old tattoo mark or paint residue from the blade or cutting device used.”

She stops briefly, takes up a specimen tube, and swabs the area. Dates and labels the contents, then continues: “The opening of the wound is two centimeters in length. However, no major blood vessels are disrupted.”

“Bingo,” I murmur, half to myself, half to the victim. “An attempt at slitting her wrists didn’t work, so she hanged herself.”

It’s enough. Enough to hope it’s as far as it goes. Small steps. Taking up the case file, I move toward the door. “See you back at the office?”

“Sheehan . . .” He sighs. “You should—”

I have to drag the lightness into my voice, into my frame. I turn, drop my hip, my hand slipping from the door. “Come on, Jack. You and I know I got this. I’ll clean it up good. Trust me. No loose ends.”

“I know he’s seeing the hollows. In my face. Below my eyes. The dark crease of the case file against clenched fingers.”

He studies my face for what seems like a full minute, tongue pushed against his cheek, chest high with tension. I know he sees beyond the high‑collared white shirt, the fresh cut of hair sharp along the jaw and newly lightened. I know he’s seeing the hollows. In my face. Below my eyes. The dark crease of the case file against clenched fingers. The pink scar running from hairline to left temple.

Finally, his shoulders fall, he lets out a long breath, and a dimple in his right cheek deepens. He looks like he’s aged an entire year in that moment.

“All right. But if it gets too much.”

I’m already moving out the door. “I know, I know. I’ll call you in or something.”


Once free of Whitehall, I turn left and head a short way down the pavement before ducking into a nearby side road. The road is more of a public driveway, an entrance to a sports ground. The dugouts are empty and littered from weekend matches. The pitches beyond are scarred brown at each end, but there are no cars parked. A good way down the driveway, breath seized in my chest, hands clinging to the case file like a lifeline, I stop, bend double, and throw up in a gutter.

It takes a moment for the retching to subside, and when I straighten, nose running, sweat trickling from my brow, I lean back against the wall, light a fag, and wait for my hands to stop trembling. As I look back up the drive, pedestrians march by, cars are dark speeding blurs, and somewhere beyond that, out in the streets of Dublin city, there are more dead bodies being found. More uninvited deaths for me to uncover.

“Fuck.” The fag drops, and I crush out the smoldering stub, then leave the sports ground. At street level, I check for Clancy’s presence, then quickly head for where I parked this morning. Inside the Waiting Room, Clancy will be ordering the tox reports I should have remembered. He’s pissed. At himself. Frustrated with me. In my mind’s eye, I see him run a large hand through his graying hair.

“I’m too old for this shit,” he’ll say. And when he sees me later, he’ll have to fill me in on all the questions I couldn’t bear to ask.


Coned party hats, no matter how jauntily positioned on the head, lose all sense of frivolity when greeted by someone who hates small talk and has a fresh corpse to deal with.

My arm is still outstretched, holding the door open. I intended on walking quietly into the office, giving a nod or two to a couple of my colleagues, then heading straight to my own corner of the building, closing the door, knocking the dust from my desk, and putting down a plan of action for the suicide case.

Helen, the only other woman on the team, steps forward and draws me into a hug. An action that reflects, no doubt, what all twenty‑odd bodies in the room feel toward me at that moment: pity. I trained as a forensic scientist and profiler for four years, worked my way up through the ranks of Gardaí to detective super for fifteen, and have been a detective chief super for two years, and in all that time I’ve never seen anyone bestow a hug on another officer. Plenty of backslapping, shoulder‑punching, knuckle‑touching, and understanding nods, but never a hug.

Suppressing horror and anger in equal measure, I struggle out of Helen’s determined grasp. Stocky, her head only to my shoulder, an immovable bank of fat and muscle. She pulls away, eyes studiously avoiding my temple. The fluorescence of the office a shining circle of light on her forehead, hair so tightly wound that I can see where the teeth of her comb have scraped over her scalp.

“We wanted to show you how happy we all are that you’re back,” she crows, then turns, sweeps a hand around the office. Includes everyone.

I can’t get my mouth to work fast enough.

“Thanks, everyone. It’s good to be back.” There is resentment in my voice and the whining sound of defensiveness. I swallow away my discomfort. They’re waiting. “It’s very kind of you all. But I thought fun and kindness were outlawed here?” A bark of laughter that no one returns.

Pitying eyes stare back from the corners of the office, a few understanding nods. Christ. How long do I have to stand here for? There’s a large chocolate cake by the vending machine. Paper cups, plates; the lot. It answers my question.

Had Clancy known about this? I can’t imagine it. I ignore the cake. The desire to reassert myself rises inside me.

“So, now that we’ve got that awkwardness out of the way, let’s get to business, shall we? We have a suicide to tie up. Excuse the pun,” I say, genuinely not having meant to reference the hanging. “Cake can wait till home time.”

Helen shakes her head. “But—”

“Inspector, you should know me better by now. I don’t suffer pity parties for my staff, and I certainly don’t suffer them for myself. Am I clear?”

Helen is relatively new to the team. A year or so, and that is new in this job. Stripes are earned only by hard work and how long you’ve waded through your caseload without stopping for more than a fag and a coffee. She will make an incredible detective one day, but for now she’s efficient to the point of grating, has yet to learn which fires to snuff out and which flames to fan, and so throws everything into every detail.

She produces a small spiral notebook from a pocket at her knee, flips to a clean page.

“Yes, Chief,” she murmurs, and makes a note. Addressing the entire room, I raise my voice.

“By all means, if you can’t bloody resist the chocolate cake, fill your party hats and go at it, but for fuck’s sake, then get to work. Who’s on the case‑building team?”

“I’m with Stevo,” Helen says. “The rest are following our lead.” “Have they recovered any phones from the scene?”


“We need to find the victim’s phone.” “Forensics are still there. I’ll call them.” “Anyone on CCTV?”

Helen shakes her head. She seems somewhat confused, and I don’t blame her. “I didn’t think there was a need.”

“The manner of death hasn’t been decided yet, Inspector.” “Sorry. Yes. I’ll get started with street cameras.” She ducks out of my path to the other side of the office.

I turn to Steve, a thin tech‑head with a mighty obsession for detail. Steve was born staring into a laptop. His face wears the signs: pale skin, lavender smudges under his eyes. His chin, so pointed you could open a tin with it, sports a ginger goatee. At his elbow, a constant companion, an energy drink to power him through the day. Steve doesn’t need a strong right hook to take a criminal down. He can do it all from the tap of his keyboard.

“Steve, a list of relatives, please. Any background info you can get on her husband.”

He nods and I look out at the rest of the room. Gray determination and the odd slicing glance of coldness come swinging my way. That’s better.

“Seems like a lot of man‑hours for a suicide,” someone mutters. I let the comment go and turn for my office.

It has become a storeroom. Boxes of files stacked in the corner, solved, minor or major crimes, each one a fingerprint smudge against

humanity. My eyes catch on a file at the top. The name: Tracy Ward. Case number: 301. No one has made an effort to move it. Weirdly, I find that hurtful. I shrug the emotion away.

I start up my computer and wait for it to whiz to life. My staff are right. This is a lot of manpower for a suicide. But I can’t risk letting something slip. If the powers that be are as tetchy about this death as Clancy would have me believe, then I can’t afford any complacency. Although, to be fair, complacency has never been my problem.

Truth is, the moment the plastic sheeting was drawn back from that woman this morning, I’d already begun shaping her personality in my mind. Short, classic, elegant hairstyle; the scent of the morning’s hairspray lifting up from her fringe as if she’d just breezed by.

I see her hand, poised, then waving overhead, fingers depressing a nozzle; sticky vapor clouds the air before landing like shimmering dew over ash‑blond hair. A beat for the hairspray to dry, then a quick comb through to soften the effect along the chin.

Jewelry had been absent, removed prior to autopsy to prevent radiological interference. But in the soft pad of each purpling earlobe were identical puncture marks, where, undoubtedly, up until a few hours before, a pair of tasteful earrings were housed. My guess would be studs. Pearl. Luminescent to complement her pale skin. A medium ball, nothing ostentatious.

“Truth is, the moment the plastic sheeting was drawn back from that woman this morning, I’d already begun shaping her personality in my mind.”

A slim‑fingered hand with a neat French manicure pushes the butterfly back onto the gold‑stemmed post. A glance in the mirror to check how they look. The pearl reflects the white glow of her shirt.

The case file tells me I’m right. There, in the photo stack, item number four: two pearl earrings with gold‑plate backs.

Settling into my chair, I pull my notebook forward to build Eleanor Costello’s picture. The next photo shows an overall shot of the scene as found at 10:16 a.m. today.

A neighbor had become worried when the victim didn’t emerge for work. Did he always notice when she didn’t leave on time? Well, yes. He had a routine. Breakfast at the window. Eight a.m. The victim would walk by his house. For the morning train. Like a religion, it was. Hard not to notice that. But no, he didn’t notice anything unusual the night before—he’d been out late. They’d been neighbors for seven years. They shared keys; he often locked himself out of his house. Didn’t all neighbors hold copies of each other’s keys? No, he hadn’t been aware that Mrs. Costello suffered from depression. If she suffered from depression. Although, between him and me, he wasn’t altogether sure whether the marriage was always a happy one, if I knew what he meant. I didn’t. But he was not one for dropping anyone in it.

This was Neil Doyle: unmarried, intrusive, and exactly the type of person I’d cross the street to avoid. Everything about him was weak and soft, from the delicate bones of his elbows that appeared just be‑ low his sleeves to the small potbelly that rounded out the bottom of his T‑shirt. He worked from home. A consultant, whatever that meant.

The husband, Peter Costello, is unreachable. But the helpful neighbor supplied us with enough information on the guy to set up a bank account in his name and take out a mortgage. Although a mortgage would probably be rejected. Peter Costello is unemployed and has been for a long time.

The next photo shows the victim’s hands; the fingers curled in, like long petals, on the palm; the tips blue, as if dark ink were pooling along the crescent‑moon nail beds. The photos are labeled, left hand, then right. Apart from a small detail on the skin, both look very similar.

On the index finger of the right hand, above the knuckle, there is a line of purple‑brown dots. Petechiae caused by minute vessels bursting under the skin. The rope rips upward, grips her throat. Sudden, hard, and terrifying. She is gulping, her body kicking for air. She fights, her right hand pushing against the rope, working its way under. But the rope bites down and something pulls her arm away. Or someone. My breathing falters, chest squeezing like a fist on a fly. My head, the scar running along my temple, feels newly sliced, oozing pain, sharp enough to make my eyes water. Anxiety is churning through my veins, thumping away at the undersurface of my stomach, pushing sweat into my eyes and down my back. I can feel fear swirling inside me. I could sense it this morning. My subconscious, ahead of my conscious, preparing me for the task ahead. The investigation not of a suicide but of a murder.


From Too Close to Breathe. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin. Copyright © 2018 by Olivia Kiernan.

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