Culture Writer Megan Hughes reviews Deadly Animals, praising the rich imagery and complex characters in Marie Tierney’s debut novel

Written by Megan Hughes

When you read Deadly Animals, it is hard to believe that this is the work of a debut author. Birmingham-born Marie Tierney has written a crime novel that is complexly constructed and could easily belong amongst the plethora of adult crime fiction. Despite this, the main perspective of the story actually belongs to that of Ava Bonney: a thirteen-year-old with a scientific eye and an almost obsessive fascination for death and decomposition. Deadly Animals features several character perspectives, but for the most part we follow Ava as she finds the corpse of local lad Mickey whilst monitoring the decay of her latest anatomical treasure (a fox skull). Unfortunately, the murder turns out to be neither accidental nor a solitary incident, and Ava is determined to use her unique proclivity for understanding bodies and human nature to assist the police in their search for the culprit. The book takes place in the 1980s and is set locally (within Frankley and Rubery), allowing for interesting comparisons between then and now. 

The descriptions of dead bodies […] are incredibly vivid and come alive on the page

It is pertinent to mention that I would not recommend this book to those who possess a weak stomach or squeamish nature regarding gore. Neither would I advise reading it directly before you eat. The descriptions of dead bodies (of which there are many, both animal and human) are incredibly vivid and come alive on the page in all their visceral glory. Tierney’s illustrations are extremely scientific and clearly point to her profession as biology teacher. Explanations of sinew and bodily injuries are ripe with imagery that does justice to her skill with vocabulary, but this also has the potential to turn one’s stomach if you do not go into the book being prepared for it! 

Within only a few pages of reading, it becomes clear that Ava is an extremely complex character and a refreshing addition to the literary canon where young characters (especially girls) are not always given a chance to explore their emotional complexity. Ava acknowledges the macabre element of her interest but does not apologise for it, rightly justifying it to herself as scientific exploration and a desire to understand how the living operate by looking at the dead. While this might come across as cold, she also recites a prayer for the roadkill that she procures for her post-mortem graveyard and displays a level of empathy that most adults would not show towards animals many would consider to be vermin. The eldest Bonney daughter is incredibly pragmatic, and her internal voice and actions often make it easy to mistake her for several years older than thirteen. However, as the book continues, it becomes clear that there are several reasons for her behaviour, which only add to the depth of her character and offer an interesting perspective on the effects of having to grow up too quickly in order to survive.

Ava is an extremely complex character and a refreshing addition to the literary canon

The other main character whose perspective we regularly hear from is the character of DS Delahaye, who turned out to be an unexpectedly heartwarming addition to Tierney’s fictional menagerie. Whilst he has faults, Delahaye openly admits them and attempts to rectify them without having to be reminded by external influences. For example, he admits that meeting Ava forces him to reevaluate what it means to be a girl and sets aside what society has told him a girl should be like in favour of the clear evidence that femininity takes as many different shapes and forms as masculinity does. Delahaye provides a positive male figure in the book and the author uses him as a tool to demonstrate that it is possible to escape the trap of toxic masculinity, even in the 1980s. ‘His mother once told him that the male gaze carried weight and could be felt everywhere it bounced…so he made sure he only looked at her face’ (p. 97).  

Deadly Animals is a dark page-turner that provides an interesting exploration of the intersection between animals and humanity

Despite the younger age of our main protagonist, the book never felt immature, and I would say that it is catered towards an adult audience. Although much of the violence in the book occurs off the page, the reader is still left to witness the aftermath of apathetic cruelty up close, the painstaking details of which are extremely dark. This is not a criticism of the story, particularly for readers like myself who prefer a gritty atmosphere that makes no attempt to romanticise pain or use it only for the purpose of shocking the reader. However, it is something to be aware of when going into the book. 

Overall, Deadly Animals is a dark page-turner that provides an interesting exploration of the intersection between animals and humanity, set against the gritty landscape of 1980s Birmingham. 

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