Detective Chief Inspector Andy Gilchrist struggles to keep his balance – and his dignity – as he slips and scrabbles over the slimy rocks that separate the ruins of St Andrews castle from the North Sea. The object of his attention is the corpse of a woman. The sea – and things that scuttle and nibble in its depths – have destroyed her face, but she is eventually identified. After what is left of her has been probed, sliced and weighed on the pathologist’s table, the verdict is that she has been strangled.
The woman is eventually identified as Alice Hickson, a journalist, and the woman who provided the ID, a literary editor called Manikandan Lal, is flying home from holiday to give further background to her friend’s disappearance and death. ‘Kandi’ Lal fails to make her appointment with Gilchrist, however, and soon the police team realise that they may be hunting for a second victim of whoever killed Alice Hickson. Gilchrist’s partner, DS Jessie Janes has problems of own, which are become nagging distractions from her professional duties. As if it were not bad enough to learn that her junkie mother has been murdered by a family member, Jessie is faced with the heartbreaking task of explaining to her son that an operation to correct his deafness has been cancelled permanently.
Battling the Arctic conditions which have descended upon Fife like a deathly blanket, Gilchrist and Janes identify the killer, but are outsmarted at every turn by a man who they discover is not only responsible for the deaths of Hickson and Lal, but is linked to a series of murders where women have been dazzled by promises of love, but then skillfully separated from their money before being brutally killed.
One of the stars of the novel is Fife and its neighbouring districts. John Rebus has occasionally battled criminals there and, in the real world, Val McDermid is Kirkcaldy born and bred, but no-one can have described the sheer barbarity of its winter climate with quite such glee as Muir. We are a few weeks away from midwinter, but we have horizontal rain, bitter east winds, windscreen wipers failing to cope with blizzards, and ice-shrivelled bracken crackling underfoot.
“It was half-past nine already and the temperature had plunged. Ahead, in the cold mist, Alloa stood like a fortified mound. Beyond, the Ochil Hills seemed to overlap in darkening greys and rounded peaks capped in white.”
Detective Inspector characters have become a staple in British crime fiction, mainly because their position gives them a complete overview of what is usually a murder case, while also allowing them to “get their hands dirty” and provide us readers with action and excitement. So, the concept has become a genre within a genre, and there must be enough fictional DCIs and DIs to fill a conference hall. This said, the stories still need to be written well, and Frank Muir (right) has real pedigree. This latest book will disappoint neither Andy Gilchrist’s growing army of fans nor someone for whom reading The Killing Connection is by way of an introduction.
Andy Gilchrist is, in some ways, familiar. He struggles to preserve what is left of his family life with the blood-sucking demands of his job. Home is a place he sleeps, alone and usually exhausted. He has a reputation as a man who battles the police heirarchy rather than seeking to join it. The account of his latest case is a thoroughly good police procedural, an expertly plotted ‘page-turner’, and a welcome addition to the shelves carrying other excellent Scottish crime novels. The Killing Connection is published by Constable, and is available here.