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Scottish Crime Fiction

STILL LIFE . . . Between the covers

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Still Life sees the return of Val McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie for her sixth case. For readers new to the series, Pirie is tough, intuitive and compassionate – qualities which stand her in good stead as leader of the Historic Crimes Unit. She has her vulnerable side, and it is never more obvious than when she contemplates the emotional scars inflicted by the murder of her former colleague and lover Phil Parhatka. In the previous book, Broken Ground, she met Hamish Mackenzie, a wealthy businessman and gentleman crofter. They are not completely ‘an item’. For Karen, the jury is still out.

McDermid loves nothing better than to juggle plot strands, and here we have two absolute beauties or, should I say, bodies. In the Blue Corner we have the corpse of a male (happily for the police complete with passport in his back pocket) recovered by fisherman tending their lobster pots. In the Red Corner is the desiccated corpse of a woman, discovered in an elderly and tarpaulined camper van, rusting away in a suburban garage.

51UwcxaxExL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The dead man is quickly identified as the brother of a long-disappeared Scottish public figure. Iain Auld, depending on your cultural terms of reference, did either a Reggie Perrin, John Stonehouse or Lord Lucan a decade earlier. He has officially been declared dead, but Pirie’s antennae are set all of a quiver, as her investigations into Auld’s disappearance have been fruitless.

The dead woman? Just as complex and convoluted. She may have been a capriciously talented jewellery designer, neither seen nor heard of for months after a troubled residence in a Highland artists’ commune. Then again, she might be the designer’s lesbian lover, a minor talent in the world of water colour landscapes.

McDermid creates her usual magic in this brilliant police procedural. Yes, all boxes are ticked, including starchy superior police officers, duplicitous figures at the heart of the world of Fine Art, sexual jealousy and crimes passionelle, government corruption and likeable (but slightly gormless) junior coppers. Long time fans of the former director of Raith Rovers FC will know that there is more – so much more. She pulls us into the narrative from page one. We are smitten, hooked, ensnared, trapped in her web – choose your own metaphor

Val McDermid is a political person, but she generally wears her views lightly. She cannot restrain herself, however, from having a little dig at her fellow Kirkcaldian Gordon Brown for ‘bottling out’ of an election in 2009 and thus succumbing the following year to a decade or more of rule by the ‘auld enemy’. The lengthy gestation period of novels usually prevents authors from being totally topical, but the final pages of Still Life have DCI Pirie and her crew clearing their desks and preparing for a Covid-19 lockdown. Karen, as we might expect, is made of stern stuff, and she faces an uncertain future with determination:

” – people would always need the polis – and even in a pandemic, murder should never go unprosecuted.”

For my reviews of the previous two Karen Pirie novels Broken Ground and Out of Bounds, click the links and you will get each in a new tab. Still Life is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

DARK WATERS . . . Between the covers

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Police Scotland DI Monica Kennedy is a distinctive woman. Tall, angular, gaunt, even. She can seem forbidding, and has little personal life outside of bringing up her daughter with the help of her long suffering mother. Monica Kennedy can be brusque with her young male DCs, Fisher and Crawford, but she is not without charm. Towards the end of the book, she and Crawford are having a rare bevy in an Inverness bar.

He tilted his head. She could tell he was already a little drunk.
“You know, you could be a model.”
Monica laughed. Almost choking on the mouthful of vodka and orange she’d just taken. Sensing the hysteria that proximity to death seemed to encourage. Sex, anger, laughter – anything to keep the reaper at bay.
“What?”
Crawford screwed his forehead up and glanced round the pub.
“You’re statuesque. It was a compliment.”
“You’re funny, Crawford.”
She finished her drink and stood up to leave, but lingered for a second, glancing around the bar. The sounds of casual drunken conversation were a comforting reminder of normality.’

DW coverThe dark waters of the title are both literal and metaphorical. Deep in a cave system beneath a mountain lies a sump, whose black depths feature in the tense and frightening final stages of this story. The dark metaphorical waters are mainly centred on a deeply disturbed – and disturbing – family who have lived their lives in a remote Highland glen, happily divorced from civilisation and its moral code. If I drop the names Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes, you should get a snapshot of the Slate family.

In a nutshell the plot of Dark Waters is that the remains of two horribly butchered men have been found, separately, in water near a huge hydro-electric dam in the Highlands. The autopsy reveals that the atrocities inflicted on the bodies were not the cause of death. As Kennedy and her lads try to identify the two men, and unpick the tangled knot of how they came to be where they were found, Halliday has a neat little game going on. A young woman disappears in the same area. The police have no idea she is missing, let alone know who she is, but we do. The first paragraph of the book is a cracker:

“When she still had all of her arms and legs, Annabelle liked to drive. And it was while she was on one of her drives that she made her first mistake.”

We share every agonising second of Annabelle’s fate,and I should mention that people with even a hint of claustrophobia or nyctophobia will not enjoy parts of this entertaining novel, nor do those who enjoy a good plate of meat get off scot-free.

halliday006Talking of Scots, GR Halliday (right) has an interesting bio:

“G.R. Halliday was born in Edinburgh and grew up near Stirling in Scotland. He spent his childhood obsessing over the unexplained mysteries his father investigated, which proved excellent inspiration for his debut novel. He now lives in the rural Highlands outside of Inverness, where he is able to pursue his favourite past-times of mountain climbing and swimming in the sea, before returning to his band of semi-feral cats.”

I might be mistaken, but I think the author makes a brief appearance in his own novel. Monica’s daughter Lucy has long wanted a cat, and Monica knows just the person to provide one:

“Michael Bach was outside in the hall, crouched over a cat basket. He stood up when he heard the door opening. He was almost as tall as Monica and seemed even larger than the last time they’d met, months before. Michael was a social worker Monica and Crawfor had previously collaborated with on a case. More important on this occasion was the fact that a number of semi-feral cats had moved in with him at his remote croft house.”

Dark Waters is a gripping crime thriller, well crafted and certainly not for the squeamish. It is published by Harvill Secker and will be out on 16th July.

BURY THEM DEEP . . .Between the covers

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James Oswald’s Edinburgh copper Tony McLean is something of a fixture in the crime fiction firmament these days, and Bury Them Deep is the tenth in the series. For those readers picking up one of his cases for the first time, a little of his back story might be helpful. He is based in Edinburgh and now, of course, works for Police Scotland. He was (unhappily) educated in English independent schools thanks to his wealthy family, some of whose riches he has inherited, thus making him ‘a man of means’. He lives in an old and impossibly roomy house, left to him by his grandmother. He has a fragile relationship with partner Emma, and it is fair to say that their life together has been punctuated by both drama and tragedy. McLean drives a very plush Alfa Romeo, enjoys an occasional glass of cask-strength single malt whisky and, aside from his instinct for police work, has been known to be susceptible to stimuli and influences that are not, as Hamlet remarked, “dreamt of in your philosophy.” After many successful cases, he is now Detective Chief Inspector McLean, but if his superiors imagine he will settle for a life behind a desk, they are very much mistaken.

BTDAnya Renfrew is a rather dowdy and dull police civilian worker who seems devoted to her job, which is mastering the many databases which keep investigations fed with information. She has never had a day off in her life, and so when she goes missing it is considered rather unusual. Her mother is a former – and legendary – police superintendent, but Grace Ramsay is now old and infirm, living in a care home. Police are never more active than when investigating actual or possible harm to one of their own, and when McLean searches Anya’s house, what he finds hidden in her wardrobe indicates that Ms Renfrew’s private life was more exotic – and dangerous – than colleagues might have imagined.

A chance bit of tomfoolery by two schoolboys, bored out of their minds during the long hot summer holiday, leads not only to the discovery of Anya Renfrew’s car, but a moorland wildfire of tinder-dry heather. When the fire service manage to douse the flames, they make a disturbing discovery. Bones. Human bones. Bones that the post-mortem investigation reveals have been deliberately stripped of their flesh.

McLean’s professional life already has one big complication. A five-times serial killer called Norman Bale is in a secure mental hospital, thanks to McLean’s diligence and bravery. Now, he asks to speak to McLean, and what he has to say is both shocking and improbable. Are his words just the ramblings of a psychological disturbed killer, or does his suggestion – that Anya Renfrew’s disappearance and the moorland bone-pit are linked to a sinister piece of folklore – have any substance?

joIt takes a bloody good writer to mix crime investigation with touches of the supernatural. John Connolly, with his Charlie Parker books is one such, but James Oswald (right)  makes it work equally as well. The finale of this novel is as deeply frightening as anything I have read for a long time. Despite the drama, Oswald can use a lighter touch on occasions. There is dark humour in the way McLean sometimes needs to ingratiate himself with Edinburgh’s smart set. At an art gallery opening night he listens politely as two guests discuss one of the objets d’art:

“Fascinating how she blends the surreal and the horrific in a melange of sensual brushwork, don’t you think?”
“It all seems a bit brutal to me. The darkness crushes your soul, sucks it in, and you become one with the oils.”
Definitely Tranent, by way of the Glasgow School of Art department of pseudo-intellectualism. He’s been just as much of a twat at that age of course; in his case a student trying to impress with his rather flawed knowledge of basic psychology…”

Bury Them Deep is published by Wildfire (an imprint of Headline Publishing) and will be available on 20th February.

 

For reviews of other books by James Oswald click the link

HOLD YOUR TONGUE . . . Between the covers

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HYT coverDeborah Masson’s police procedural Hold Your Tongue is as gritty as the granite in the Aberdeen where it is set. Fictional Detective Inspectors tend to be brilliant, yet with fatal flaws; perceptive, but incapable of managing calm personal lives; honest and principled, but concealing their own dark secrets. Masson’s Eve Hunter ticks all the boxes, and adds a few of her own. She is returning to work after a catastrophic encounter with a notorious criminal family. After the son of the crime gang’s Capo sustains life changing injuries in a car chase, Johnny MacNeill has exacted brutal revenge resulting in Hunter’s partner DS Nicola Sanders being paralysed from the neck down, while Hunter herself has a permanently damaged leg and intense psychological scarring.

There is no ‘Welcome Back’ party for Hunter. There are former colleagues who blame her impulsive and driven approach to police work for what happened to Nicola Sanders. Her boss doubts she is ready for a return, particularly as her first case will be to solve the savage murder of an aspiring model, found dead in a hotel room, surrounded by an elaborate and deliberate staging of fashion magazines, make-up and mirrors. Melanie Ross’s tongue has been cut out, and taken away by her killer.

Masson makes telling use of Aberdeen itself as a baleful presence looming behind the misdeeds of its citizens. Despite the grim grandeur of its municipal buildings, the passing of the North Sea oil bonanza has left a legacy of closed shops and tatty, uncared-for neighbourhoods. A prostitute called Rosie, who is involved with one of the suspects, provides a chilling metaphor for the city:

“Rosie pulled together the edges of the flimsy unbuttoned black raincoat that she wore; it barely concealed the bony chest in a low-cut top and laddered fishnets below a skirt that could pass as easily for a belt.”

The pre-Christmas weather
is vile and utterly inhospitable. The sleety rain slants down, the wind blows in squalls from the North Sea, and the grey light of dawn reveals city streets slick, wet and icy, decorated only with discarded takeaway meals, the odd abandoned high-heeled shoe, and a general air of attempts at gaiety which ended in failure.

More murders follow, and they are clearly the work of the same person. Eventually Hunter realises what the elaborate posing of the victims signifies. The killer has somehow become obsessed with the old nursery fable:

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

71VcTMOa58L._US230_As the killer works towards the Sabbath Day child, Hunter and her colleagues dash this way and that, always vital hours behind the murderer. Masson (right) contributes to the mayhem with some elegantly clever misdirection. Early in the piece she teases us with the suggestion that the series of murders has something to do with brothers and sisters, but even when we – and Eve Hunter – think we are close to the truth, there is one big surprise left. Hold Your Tongue is an assured and convincing debut, and I hope there will be more cases to come for Eve Hunter. The book is out now, and published by Corgi/Penguin.

 

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TIME FOR THE DEAD . . . Between the covers

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Since she first appeared, sixteen years ago, in Driftnet, forensic scientist Dr Rhona MacLeod has lived out the words of her infamous Scottish compatriot, the former Thane of Glamis:

I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

TFTDIndeed, her creator Lin Anderson has included the fatal ‘D’ word in the titles of each successive novel from number eight, Picture Her Dead (2012) to this latest novel, the thirteenth in the series. For readers new to the novels, and I am one such, Anderson wastes no time in letting us know that Dr MacLeod is recovering physically and mentally from a terrible ordeal. She is on enforced sick leave, has taken herself away from her Glasgow base and rather than endure a spell in the official police rehabilitation unit at Castlebrae, has decided to revisit her teenage summer holiday haunts on the Isle of Skye.

Back in Glasgow, sometime colleague DS Michael McNab is carrying out duty of care for Rhona, of a sort, by daily Skype calls, but it is a close run thing which of the two is the more uncomfortable with these encounters.

It is now winter on Skye, and it is a very different place from the sunlit island Rhona knew as a teenager. As ever, the Black Cuillin broods over Glen Brittle and Sligachan, but now the crests of the peaks are white with the first snows. Rhona is reunited with Jamie McColl, a summer holiday friend and, through him, she meets the proprietors of A.C.E Target Sports, an outdoor adventure facility – and their dog, Blaze. Rhona takes Blaze for a walk – or vice versa – but as the December light begins to fail:

They had reached a small break in the tree cover. Rhona registered the sound of a burn running somewhere close by. A bird rose with a harsh call that startled her, raising her heartbeat.
As she drew alongside the dog, it turned to lick her hand, whining a little.
‘What is it boy? What’s wrong?’
Everything, the answering whine told her. Everything about this place is wrong.‘Show me, Blaze. Show me what you’ve found.’”

LAWe are now on page 29 of 425, but Lin Anderson (right) has already established an intriguing parallel narrative, the significance of which we can only guess at this stage. As the novel unfolds, however the mists begin to clear, although the full significance of this sub-plot, and how it converges, horrifically, with Rhona MacLeod’s supposed recuperation, only becomes clear in the last few pages.

Without, I hope, giving away any of the beautiful intricacies of this novel, I can say that a group of serving RAMC medics, on leave, have decided to visit Skye to see if the resilience and courage they showed in the face of the implacable brutality of Helmand Province and the Taliban will be, in any way, tested by the wintry glens and screes of Skye. What befell them in Afghanistan, and how those events play out on Eilean a’ Cheo, the Misty Isle, is for you to discover.

Time For The Dead is a brilliantly written thriller, as hard as nails in places, but also gloriously Romantic, in the nineteenth century sense of nature being a formidable force, with mountain chasms, storm washed beaches and human beings clinging on by the skin of their teeth. It is a police procedural at its heart, but one that is as black as the sand on Skye beaches. Published by Macmillan, it is out on 8th August.

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COLD AS THE GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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This is a welcome return to the world of Edinburgh copper Tony McLean. He is now Chief Inspector, and to quote, appropriately enough, the Scottish Play, he feels he is dressed in ‘borrow’d robes’. On his desk are small mountains of files, reports, initiatives and consultation documents: beyond the door of the nick are thieves, rapists and murderers. McLean knows where his heart is leading him, and it is out away from his desk and onto the mean streets.

When McLean uses the excuse of a potential clash between rival demonstrators to desert his office, he discovers a corpse abandoned in a derelict cellar. As the technicians and medics swarm round the body it seems obvious that the remains – of a young girl – have been there for some considerable time. When, however, the pathologist is able to take a closer look under the spotlight above the mortuary slab, he comes to the astonishing conclusion that the girl has only been dead for a matter of days, despite her desiccated and leathery skin.

indexCold As The Grave is the ninth novel in the Tony McLean series, but fine writers – and Oswald is up there with the very best – make sure that it is never too late to come to the party. For anyone new to the series, McLean is something of an individual. Due to an inheritance, he is exceedingly wealthy, but has a modest lifestyle and chooses to remain a police officer. He has a long-standing ‘significant other’ in Emma Baird, but the previous novel, The Gathering Dark, (click to read the review) ended with her having a disastrous miscarriage. McLean is a fine detective, but he is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an awareness of the supernatural. The two characters in the books who operate in this sphere are Madame Rose, a bizarre but benign transvestite clairvoyant, and the considerably more sinister Mrs Saifre. She is, on the surface, merely a very rich and influential owner of newspapers and media outlets, but McLean senses that there is something existentially evil and elemental behind her smooth corporate image.

Back in Cold As The Grave, more bodies are found, each apparently mummified in the same way as the poor child found in the tenement cellar. McLean makes an important connection between the deaths and the rising tide of people trafficking which has hit the city. Girls and young women from the war zones of the Middle East are being brought in and, at best, set to work for a pittance in local factories but, at worst, forced into prostitution.

With his bosses exasperated at the amount of time he is spending away from his paper shuffling duties, McLean’s investigation reaches a crucial fork in the road. To the left is the grim possibility that someone at the heart of the trafficking gang is using some kind of deadly serum, derived from snake venom, to carry out murders and threaten other victims: to the right, however improbable, is the presence of some kind of evil djinn reincarnated from Aramaic legend and folklore. McLean knows that following the road to the right will lead only to ridicule by both his superior officers and those who work for him, but he has learned to trust his instincts, even if they terrify him.

joDoes McLean follow his head or his heart? The road to the left or the right? Cold As The Grave is a brilliant police procedural, but there is more – so much more – to it. For those who love topographical atmosphere Oswald (right) recreates a wintry Edinburgh that makes you want to turn up the central heating by a couple of notches; for readers drawn by suggestions of the supernatural there is enough here to induce a shiver or three, while making sure the bedroom light remains on while you sleep. The sheer decency and common humanity of Tony McLean – and the finely detailed portraits of the people he works with – will satisfy the reader who demands authentic and credible characterisation. Cold As The Grave is published by Wildfire/Headline and will be out on 7th February.

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BROKEN GROUND . . . Between the covers

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BGThe Body In The Bog is a nicely alliterative strapline normally used to liven up reports of archaeologists discovering some centuries-old corpse in a watery peat grave. The deaths of these poor souls does not usually involve an investigation by the local police force, but as Val McDermid relates, when the preserved remains are wearing expensive trainers, it doesn’t take the tenant of 221B Baker Street to deduce that the chap was not executed as part of some arcane tribal ritual back in the tenth century.

A pair of hopefuls from England have traveled to the bleak Scottish moors of Wester Ross, armed with what they hope is a treasure map. They hope to uncover not a sturdy wooden chest bursting with pirate doubloons or King John’s lost gold, but treasure of a different sort – two mint condition vintage motor cycles, worth a fortune at 2018 prices. They disinter the motorcycles with the help of a friendly local crofter and his mini JCB, but their elation is soured by – yes, you’ve guessed – the aforementioned fellow and his 1995 Nike Air Max sportswear.

Motorcycles? Buried in a Scottish peat bog? Marked on a map? Has Val McDermid finally lost her marbles after years of inventing fiendish ways for people to die? Leaving no question unanswered, I have to say yes, yes, yes – and an emphatic NO! Breaking Ground is the fifth in McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie series and is shot through with the author’s trademark brilliance. McDermid does complex, clever, conflicted women like no-one else, and Pirie – of Police Scotland’s Historic Crimes Unit – is a fine cop, scarred by personal tragedy, studiously unglamorous in looks and style, but with a fierce determination to seek justice for victims of crime, both living and dead. The police procedural aspect of the story is cleverly done, and provides the essential counterpont of rivalry, betrayal and bitterness which run beneath the main tune which is the public face of policing.

ValMcDermidIf music halls were still in vogue, McDermid would be the dextrous juggler, the jongleur who defies gravity by keeping several plot lines spinning in the air; spinning, but always under her control. There is the Nike bog body, a domestic spat which ends in savagery, a cold-case rape investigation which ends in a very contemporary tragedy, and an Assistant Chief Constable who is more concerned about her perfectly groomed press conferences that solving crime. They say that the moon has a dark side, and so does Edinburgh: McDermid (right)  takes us on a guided tour through its majestic architectural and natural scenery, but does not neglect to pull away the undertaker’s sheet to reveal the squalid back alleys and passageways which lurk behind the grand Georgian facades. We slip past the modest security and peep through a crack in the door at a meeting in one of the grander rooms of Bute House, the official residence of Scotland’s First Minister, even getting a glimpse of the good lady herself, although McDermid is far too discreet to reveal if she approves or disapproves of Ms Sturgeon.

Karen Pirie battles the metaphorical demons of her own personal history, while facing more literal malice in the person of a senior officer who is determined to bring her down. The death of her beloved partner Phil has bequeathed emotional turmoil, anger and longing. When she meets a potentially interesting man in the course of a murder investigation, she is conflicted. Is he lying to her? Is he just a glib charmer, ruggedly beautiful in his kilt, or is his interest in her – intentionally dowdy and brusquely professional as she is – genuine?

Val McDermid answers all these questions, and poses a few of her own, particularly about the state of modern Scotland and the role of cash-strapped police forces in a society which demands quick solutions, and to hell with integrity. Broken Ground is published by Little, Brown and is available in hardback and as a Kindle. Amazon says that it will be out in paperback early in 2019.

Click the link to read the review of McDermid’s previous novel, Insidious Intent.

 

THE POLISH DETECTIVE . . . Between the covers

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FICTIONAL SCOTTISH COPPERS – rather like single malt whiskies – are spread the length and breadth of that fine country. Highlands, Lowlands, islands, stately university cities, gritty oil and gas ports, mistily romantic glens and litter-strewn council estates where hope goes to die. Chris Longmuir has set her DS Bill Murphy novels in Dundee, but she has by no means cornered the Tayside market, for now comes Hania Allen with the first in a series set in Dundee and featuring Polish-born DS Dania Gorska.

TPDDania Gorska has come to work in Dundee after starting her career in London with the Met. A divorce from husband Tony (watch out for the clever twist) has left her footloose and fancy free. Her exemplary record has meant she has enjoyed a swift and welcome transfer to Police Scotland. She lodges with her brother Marek, who is an investigative journalist.

The discovery, in a farmer’s field, of the body of a female academic displayed in the manner of a scarecrow sets in train a murder enquiry which takes Gorska and her colleagues down a twisty and circuitous road where they come across Druids, an eccentric Laird, two missing schoolgirls – and another girl obsessed with studying how dead creatures decay. As you might expect, the killer hasn’t finished and more corpses end up on the pathologist’s cutting table. Early on in the narrative, one of the characters comes across as a definite ‘wrong ‘un’, but Allen weaves the threads of the plot into a cunning riddle with a surprising and satisfying solution.

Hania-Allen_CarolineTrotter-Photography_2017The Polish Detective is in some ways a standard police procedural which chugs along nicely on its accustomed rails. All the usual characters are present and correct; no such story would be complete without a dyspeptic senior officer, the obligatory post mortem scene with a sarcastic medical professor wielding the bone saw, the male junior detective who thinks he’s Jack – or perhaps Jock – the Lad, and the mind numbing tedium of the door knocking and CCTV scanning that sits behind every brilliant solution to a murder mystery. What lifts this book above the average is the character of Dania Gorska herself, and in particular her musical passion for, naturally, her great countryman Frédéric François Chopin and his sublime piano music. Hania Allen (right) describes herself as a pianist who makes up in enthusiasm what she lacks in talent, but under the fingers of DS Gorska, the great man’s preludes and nocturnes shimmer and sparkle throughout the pages, and the darker notes of the Polish soul are never far away.

The events in The Polish Detective take place on the eve of the June 2016 EU referendum, the result of which I suspect Hania Allen disapproves, as she has her heroine declaring at one point, that Chopin was “ also a European, as we all are..” I live in a town full of lovely Polskie people who have come to Britain in the last fifteen years or so, and those that I know well are intensely proud – in the best way possible – of their nation and its culture. Dania Gorska’s claim, therefore, may be something of a leap of faith, but Hania Allen makes a serious point about the debt this country owes to Polish men and women stretching back to the dark days of WW2.

Politics aside, Hania Allen may be allowed self deprecation of her skills as a pianist, but on this evidence there is do doubt whatsoever about her skills as a crime novelist. The Polish Detective is tautly plotted, full of intriguing characters and settings, with a thoroughly engaging new central character. It is published by Constable and is out in paperback on 9th August.

Fans of Scottish crime fiction might like to see what Fully Booked has in the way of reviews and features centred on this popular genre. Click the blue link to see what’s on offer.

ONLY THE DEAD CAN TELL . . . Between The Covers

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By my reckoning this is the fifteenth outing for Alex Gray’s veteran Glaswegian copper, William – now Detective Superintendent – Lorimer. A woman – who, if witnesses are to be believed, was a deeply unpleasant person – is found stabbed to death, her hands clutched around a top-of-the-range kitchen knife. Dorothy Guilford was widely disliked both within her own family and further afield while her husband, Peter – by contrast – has few detractors. Yet the working hypothesis of the police investigating Dorothy’s demise is that Peter Guilford did the deed.

OTDCT COVER SMALLLorimer has become bogged down in a partially – and only partially – successful investigation into murder, prostitution and people trafficking based in Aberdeen. In the Granite City some entrepreneurs, denied a living by the decline in the oil and gas industries, have taken to trading in other commodities – human lives. However, to borrow the memorable line from The Scottish Play, Lorimer’s team have “scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it.” The head of the gang responsible for taking young and innocent Romany women from impoverished Slovakian villages, and setting them to work in Scottish brothels is known only as “Max”. The very mention of his name is enough to silence witnesses, even those who have every reason to long for his downfall. But how – if at all – is Max connected to Peter Guilford, arrested for his wife’s murder, but now beaten within an inch of his life while on remand in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison?

Alex Gray gives us an enthralling supporting cast. Ever present are the consultant psychologist, Dr Solomon Brightman and his wife Rosie, a pathologist who has the essential – but unenviable – task of literally eviscerating the human bodies which are the result of murder most foul. Young Detective Constable Kirsty Wilson goes above and beyond the call of duty to make sense of the confusing and contradictory ‘facts’ of the Dorothy Guilford case. All the while, though, she is facing a personal dilemma. Her boyfriend has just won the promotion of his dreams – a prominent position in his bank’s Chicago operation. But will Kirsty cast aside her own imminent promotion to Detective Sergeant, and follow James in his pursuit of The American Dream?

AlexGrayThe British police procedural – the Scottish police procedural, even – is a crowded field, and each author and their characters tries to bring something different to choosy readers. Where Alex Gray (right) makes her mark, time and time again, is that she is unafraid to show the better things of life, the timeless touches of nature in a summer garden, or the warmth of affection between characters, particularly, of course, the bond between William and Margaret Lorimer. Here is one such moment:

“She smiled as he selected a bottle from the fridge. The dusk was settling over the treetops, a haze of apricot light melting into the burnished skies …….she pulled a cardigan across her shoulders as she settled down on the garden bench, eyes gazing upwards as a thrush trilled its liquid notes. Live in the moment, she thought, breathing in the sweetness that wafted from the night-scented stocks.”

This is not to say that Gray wears rose-tinted spectacles. This is far, far from the case, and her scenes depicting the violence – both emotional and physical – that we inflict on one another are powerful, visceral and compelling.

A particular mention needs to be made of the deft touches Gray uses when writing about Margaret Lorimer. Here is a woman much to be envied in many ways. She has a loving husband, a stable and prosperous home life, and a teaching career in which she touches the lives of so many young people in her school. And yet, and yet. A cloud hovers over Margaret, and it is one that can never be blown from the otherwise blue sky. The couple’s inability to have children sometimes weighs heavily, especially when friends and colleagues are gifted with children. But Gray never allows Margaret to become embittered, and if she envies Rosie and Solomon, for example, then she keeps it to herself.

Only The Dead Can Tell is, quite simply, superbly written and plotted. It sums up everything that is golden and enthralling about a good book. It is published by Sphere, and will be out as a hardback and a Kindle on 22nd March.

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