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Run Time by Catherine Ryan Howard: Horror on film set evokes the fun of an old-school slasher

“The queen of high-concept crime fiction” — that’s how Catherine Ryan Howard is described on the cover of Run Time, her latest thriller. It’s a compliment, obviously, although in an unintended way it also does her a bit of a disservice: the reader might infer that the Cork woman is all gimmick and no substance, which would be inaccurate and unfair.

er books do tend to hang on a narrative hook that’s easy to précis: from 2016 debut Distress Signals (death on cruise ships) to last year’s bestseller 56 Days (murder in lockdown). But that’s probably the case with most crime novels.

Besides, Ryan Howard doesn’t just announce this “high concept” then stand back, urging you to admire it. She takes it in unexpected directions, to interesting places, with characters who feel real, dialogue that rings true and storylines that are exciting, nerve-wracking or both.

And the work is getting better all the time. The earlier novels, yes, do feel as if the clever setting and/or twist is much of the attraction. But now, six books into a career that’s skyrocketing in critical and public acclaim — you’d have to suspect that superstardom is both inevitable and near-at-hand — there’s real sophistication, assurance and clarity to Ryan Howard’s fiction.

Run time is a book about a film about a book. Director Steve Dade has assembled a skeleton crew and a tiny cast in the furthest wilds of West Cork to make a horror movie. The cast is so tiny, in fact, that when shooting starts, it numbers but one.

Adele Rafferty: former child-star in an Irish soap, made a few well-received films, had a nervous breakdown on set and fled for LA, where she works in a motel and auditions, quixotically, for parts she knows she’ll never get

She is on the verge of quitting acting when an email offers the lead role in Final Draft. Steve seems to be a talented up-and-comer, his bona fides verified by Adele’s friend and fellow actor Julia.

Adele gets the red-eye to Ireland and, 36 sleepless hours later, is being driven by taxi through a gloomy, oppressive forest (the West Cork geography, our author admits, is slightly reconfigured).

Mystery abounds from early on. The place is literally miles from anywhere, cut off from the world. The all-male atmosphere on-set, Adele feels, is off. Steve is obnoxious, the crew are surly, the wardrobe guy radiates a predatory vibe; only Dónal, general all-round gopher, seems normal and nice. She finds someone’s earring in supposedly new accommodation. She finds someone’s handwritten notes on a supposedly unfinished script.

We also get going on some meta-textual fun and games. Within the Final Draft screenplay — whose pages are interspersed with Run time‘s overall narrative — Karen and Joel have traveled to this same forest on a romantic getaway that’s going south at a rate of knots. Karen comes across a novel, First Draftwritten in this very house.

Its characters, Kate and Jack, share her and Joel’s initials. Creepy things start happening to Kate in the novel, then Karen in the screenplay — and finally Adele in real-life.

Memories of her “psychotic break” a few years before make her doubt herself. Is she imagining some or all of this? Exhaustion, jetlag and a night-time shooting schedule don’t help. Adele is soon strung-out and bewildered, unsettling reality blurring into dread imaginings. When she wakes up on the second day and everyone seems to have vanished, bewilderment and unease quickly morph into panic.

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Up to now, 56 Days had been the best Ryan Howard mystery I’d read. It’s really good but extremely dark, in mood and theme. Run time is, if not necessarily the “better” book, certainly more of a pure pleasure to read.

If those two novels actually were horror movies, we’d describe this one as scary, thrilling and funny — an old-school slasher movie, say — whereas 56 Days was something “artier”: the kind of horror that wins awards. Menacing and disturbing, emotionally grueling at times; lingering in the mind afterwards in a way that wasn’t always pleasant.

Anyway, Run time puts Ryan Howard right up there with my holy trinity of female Irish crime-writers — Jane Casey, Jo Spain and Tana French — although in fairness, we should point out there are quite a few good ‘uns out there.

In another postmodern nod-and-wink, Ryan Howard has one of the characters, late on, bemoan the “disappointing” and “mundane” explanation for everything that’s happened to them. In a funny way, I can see what they mean. But it’s huge fun getting there.

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Run Time by Catherine Ryan Howard

Thriller: Run Time by Catherine Ryan Howard

Corvus, 448 pages, hardcover €21; e-book £6.02

Darragh McManus’ books include ‘The Driving Force’ and ‘Pretend We’re Dead’

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