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Scottish Crime Fiction

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Alex Gray

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The darkest hours of winter have now gone here in Britain and, imperceptibly, the days are getting longer, although at a maddeningly slow crawl. Nothing lightens the gloom better than packages from publishers which contain books which will not see the light of day until the green of the Spring.

Alex Gray017_1By 22nd March 2018, there should be catkins on the willow and hazel, daffodils should be getting into their stride and, even if it’s a little early to be looking for summer migrants like swallows and warblers, nothing will be more welcome to lovers of good crime fiction than the return of William Lorimer in another – the fifteenth, unbelievably – police procedural set in Scotland. Since Alex Gray (left) saw Never Somewhere Else published in 2002, she has made Lorimer and his world one of the go-to destinations for anyone who loves a well-crafted crime novel, with a sympathetically portrayed central character.

Lorimer’s latest case involves a woman stabbed to death, and wise heads from Police Scotland are certain that Dorothy Guildford’s husband Peter did the deed. After all, most murder victims knew their killer, didn’t they? What with the squeeze on budgets, and overtime eating the flesh from the force’s financial bones, who needs a protracted and complex murder enquiry? But. But. When Peter is savagely attacked and is clinging n to life in an ICU, Detective Superintendent Lorimer and Detective Constable Kirsty Wilson smell a very large and malodorous rat, and become convinced that the wrong man is in the frame for the killing.

Only The Dead Can Tell is written by Alex Gray, is published by Sphere/Little Brown, and will be available on 22 March 2018 in hardback and Kindle, with a paperback edition becoming available in November 2018.

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THE GATHERING DARK … Between the covers

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DI Tony McLean is an Edinburgh copper who is just a tad different from your standard tick-box fictional Detective Inspector. Yes, he works long hours, to the detriment of his home life, and doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with his superiors. Yes, he is occasionally given to special insights into crimes and criminals and, of course, he always gets his man (or woman). McLean, though, is something of a breed apart. His personal background is, well, unusual. After unhappy schooldays at a private school he hated, he has inherited money and property which make him a wealthy man after his parents were killed in a plane crash. He is gifted – or cursed – with a heightened sense of perception which may, or may not be, occult in nature. Despite his unwillingness to come to terms with this, he has an interesting friendship with a transvestite spirit medium called Madam Rose, who should be a comic character, but is anything but that.

billwaters_JamesO__10525-smaller-683x1024I should add, at this point, that James Oswald (left) is not your regulation writer of crime fiction novels. He has a rather demanding ‘day job’, which is running a 350 acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep. His entertaining Twitter feed is, therefore, just as likely to contain details of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ obstetrics as it is to reveal insights into the art of writing great books. But I digress. I don’t know James Oswald well enough to say whether or not he puts anything of himself into the character of Tony McLean, but the scenery and routine of McLean’s life is nothing like that of his creator.

TGDMcLean is going about his daily business when he is witness to a tragedy. A tanker carrying slurry is diverted through central Edinburgh by traffic congestion on the bypass. The driver has a heart attack, and the lorry becomes a weapon of mass destruction as it ploughs into a crowded bus stop. McLean is the first police officer on the scene, and he is immediately aware that whatever the lorry was carrying, it certainly wasn’t harmless – albeit malodorous – sewage waste. People whose bodies have not been shattered by thirty tonnes of hurtling steel are overcome and burned by a terrible toxic sludge which floods from the shattered vehicle.

The police are desperate to reassure the Edinburgh public that this is not a terrorist attack, but a tragic accident, a fateful coming together of coincidences. McLean and his team are tasked with the grim business of identifying all those who died in the crash, but also with investigating the company which owned the lorry, and what on earth the chemical cocktail was that literally burned the flesh and bones of those who came into contact with it.

As McLean starts to peel back the layers of deception and corruption which are wrapped around the truth about the disaster, he senses a sinister element in the case which exudes the stench of pure evil, far beyond that of the already grim death toll. His own personal life – most crucially involving his partner Emma, carrying their unborn child – becomes entangled with the case. McLean’s investigations turn over a heavy stone which reveals myriad guilty and repulsive things scuttling around as they are exposed to the light.

Sometimes titles of crime and thriller novels seem to have been chosen more to catch the eye of potential purchasers rather than for their relationship to the plot, but in this case those three words are chillingly apt. This disturbing story may start off as a relatively straightforward police procedural. All the familiar elements are there: the internal rivalries between officers, the bustling incident room, decent men and women trying to keep a lid on the thousand misdemeanours a big city throws up every week. But. But. A word to the wise. No, scrap that, and replace it with a much more suitable phrase – borrowed from a nightmarish MR James ghost story from 1925 – A Warning to the Curious. I have to tell you that The Gathering Dark is superbly written and gripping from the first page to the last, but it turns hellishly black and may trouble your dreams.

Click the link to read the Fully Booked review of an earlier DI Tony McLean novel, Written In Bones. The Gathering Dark is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin, and will be available on 25th January 2018.

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THE GATHERING DARK … The postman delivers

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James Oswald has knocked on the door, and been admitted to the hall wherein are gathered the great and the good of Scottish crime fiction. His DI Tony McLean is now well established, and McLean’s Edinburgh is every bit as authentic as that of his older – and more curmudgeonly – colleague John Rebus. In The Gathering Dark, McLean tries to establish the truth after a catastrophic  event – possibly an accident, but who knows? – where a loaded truck ploughs into a crowd of people at a bus stop, with fatal consequences.

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THE KILLING CONNECTION… Between the covers

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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.

TKC CoverThe 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.”

Frank-MuirDetective 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.

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THE WELL OF THE DEAD … Between the covers

 

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TWOTD CoverIn the icy Scottish dawn of 16th April 1746, the last battle to be fought on British soil was just hours away. The soldiers of the Hanoverian army of William Duke of Cumberland were shaking off their brandy-befuddled sleep, caused by extra rations to celebrate the Duke’s birthday. Just a mile or two distant, the massed ranks of the Scottish clans loyal to Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, were shivering in their plaid cloaks, wet and exhausted after an abortive night march to attack the enemy.

One small group of Highlanders, however, had something else on their minds. Chancing upon a broken down wagon belonging to Cumberland’s paymaster, they discover a literal treasure chest of gold put aside for soldiers’ wages. They make off with the gold, and in doing so miss the ensuing carnage on Culloden Moor. McGillivray intends to use the riches to restore the fortunes of the Jacobite cause, but events take a contrary turn.

Modern Scotland. The Spring of 2010. Burglars break into Cullairn Castle, the ancestral home of the McGillivray clan. The present owners, and descendants of the McGillivrays, are brutally murdered in the course of the break-in. DCI Neil Strachan has to make sense of the violent deaths of Duncan Forbes and his wife, but is puzzled by the mutilations on the bodies. There is a crude copy of a clan emblem cut into the dead flesh, as well as an attempt to carve something even more obscure – a symbol which appears to be a character from the dead Pictic language, Ogham.

While simultaneously trying to discover who is stalking his girlfriend and sending her threatening text messages, Strachan works on the Cuillairn mystery and comes to the conclusion that someone has an insider’s knowledge of the McGillivray legend, and will stop at nothing until the treasure, now worth millions, is unearthed.

cliveThe Well Of The Dead is a winning combination of several different elements. It’s a brisk and authentic police procedural, written by someone who clearly knows how a major enquiry works. For those who enjoy a costume drama with a dash of buried treasure, there is interest a-plenty. Military history buffs will admire the broad sweep of how Allan (right) describes the glorious failure that was the Jacobite rebellion, as well as being gripped by the detailed knowledge of the men who fought and died on that sleet-swept April day in 1746, bitter both in the grim weather conditions and what would prove to be a disastrous legacy for the Scottish Highlanders and their proud culture.

If all that were not enough, Allan gives us a whole raft of characters, both engaging – and downright menacing , with a few in between. DCI Strachan sharp-elbows his way into the crowded room containing the swelling ranks of fictional British Detective Inspectors, but he certainly makes his voice heard above the clatter of conversation. Fans of the standard whodunnit are well catered for, as Allan misdirects readers with the skill of a long established master.

This is a huge chunk of a book of almost intimidating length. I confess that I started reading dutifully, rather than enthusiastically. It only took a few pages, however, and I was hooked. Chapter after chapter went by as Allan’s excellent skills as a story-teller worked their magic. He also has a spectacularly wide vocabulary and he is not afraid to use it. “Epicenism”? “Mordacious”? I had to reach for the dictionary on more than one occasion, but such a love of the more remote corners of our wonderful language made me smile, and I have set myself the task of recycling some of his re-discovered etymological gems in a future review. In conclusion, this is a crackerjack novel from an author who was previously unknown to me. Clive Allan is a writer whose future books I shall be anxiously looking out for. The Well Of The Dead is available now. Online buying options are here.

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The Postman Delivers … The Well of The Dead

WELL headerThis is the second outing for Clive Allan’s Detective Inspector Neil Strachan and, as in the first book in the series, The Drumbeater, past and present collide. Glenruthven, a tiny community in the Scottish Highlands, is dominated by its distillery. When the owner, Hugh Fraser is murdered alongside his wife, the village is shattered at the thought of there being a killer in their midst.

WELL BACK017As Strachan and his police partner DS Holly Anderson set about finding the killer, they discover that the man they suspect of the double murder is obsessed with his own ancestry, and believes that he is related to a Jacobite soldier who, like so many of his fellow rebels, was slain on the bloody battlefield of Culloden on 16th April 1746.

cliveClive Allan (right) is a former police officer of thirty years’ service, and is also a keen aficionado of his country’s military history. This mixture of experience and passion combines to create a novel which will blend the lure of momentous events of the past with the gritty reality of modern policing.

The Well of The Dead is published by Troubadore/Matador and will be available on 28th April 2017.

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WRITTEN IN BONES … Between the covers

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“Falling, yes I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again.” So went the lyrics of one of my favourite Beatles songs, but the unfortunate victim who features in the opening pages of this excellent police procedural from James Oswald has little to sing about. He plummets through the chill air of an Edinburgh winter early dawn. His descent is broken violently and catastrophically by the unyielding branches of a tree. Had the ten year-old boy out walking under the tree with his dog been an expert on Shakespeare’s Roman plays, he might have said, “Oh, what a fall was there, my countrymen!” Instead, he is interviewed as the only witness to one of the more bizarre crimes ever investigated by Detective Inspector Tony McLean.

bonesAs the pathologists – literally – piece together the evidence they conclude that the shattered remains in the tree is that all that is left of Bill Chalmers, a copper who was not so much bent as tangled and doubled up on himself. After surviving a jail sentence for his misdeeds, he used his connections and his wits to found a drug rehabilitation charity, which drew immense support from the community.

Now, his good deeds are over. His remains are laid out on a mortuary table. The lad who witnessed Chalmers’ final fall from grace is, himself, remotely connected to Edinburgh gangland gentry. His late father was Tommy Johnston, a club owner and provider of female flesh to the gentry. Johnston was shot dead years earlier, but although there was no shortage of potential suspects, his killer has remained unidentified and at large.

There are so many Detective Inspectors walking the corridors of British crime fiction that to succeed, each must have something different, something which will grab the readers’ attention. McLean is, thanks to a serendipitous bequest from a distant relative, materially far better off than his constabulary colleagues. Despite his ability to buy the flashiest of upmarket motors, he insists on driving an aged Alfa Romeo. He lives in a large house, alone except for his neighbour’s cat, and his on-off girlfriend, Emma. He is not in the first flush of youth, certainly, but he has few vices outside of a perfectly natural love of the warmth and texture of obscure single malt whiskies.

McLean’s quest for answers to explain the dramatic death of Chalmers is hampered by his ever increasing suspicion that if he were to find the truth, it would implicate several serving members of Police Scotland, and these would be men way, way above his own pay grade. As the worst snow for a decade brings chaos to the streets of Scotland’s capital, McLean finds himself the target of not only the weather, but powerful members of an international crime syndicate.

If there is a tiny weakness of the novel, it is its reliance on the backstory, as McLean eventually homes in on the culprits. We are made aware of the resourcefulness and malevolence of the person behind the mayhem – the enigmatic Mrs Saifre. The problem is that there are broad hints of how McLean has suffered at her hands in previous episodes, but we are left having to take this on trust.

This reservation aside, I can recommend Written In Bones to anyone who likes an intense police procedural, with just a dash of the supernatural, lavish helpings of atmosphere, evocative landscape descriptions and beautifully drawn characters. A few words about the author. James Oswald has a day job. That job is probably the most demanding of any occupations, as James is farmer in Fife, where he looks after pedigree Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep. Written In Bones is published by Michael Joseph and is out now.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Oswald & Westworth

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The Postman Delivers…except that he didn’t, quite. My regular chap is resigned to regular and frequent booky parcels, and always leaves them by the servants’ entrance if he can’t make me hear, or I am somewhere away on my rambling ancestral estate. But regular chap is on holiday, so replacement chap took yesterday’s books back to the sorting office, from where I had to collect them. The little red ticket from the postie wasn’t enough to prove my identity, neither was my haughty, “Don’t you know who I used to be..?” So, I had to show them the scandalously unflattering photo on my driving licence, the one where I look like one of Bertie Wooster’s less intelligent friends. But, eventually, the books were collected, and they were well worth the effort.

back-cover007First out of its protective wrapper was the latest from one of my favourite British writers, Frank Westworth. He has created a noirish world of grimy London music venues, peopled with frequently freakish characters and misfits, all of whom live out the heartbreaking three-chord trick of the Blues in their real lives. Presiding over the mayhem is a moody and reclusive investigator, cum killer, cum doer-of-dirty-deeds for the British establishment. His name is JJ Stoner, and as well as bending his guitar strings into shivering blue notes, he has an uneasy and unique relationship with three weird sisters. Note the absence of capitals, as these ladies are not the cauldron-stirring crones of The Scottish Play, but three violent and devious sexual predators. We have met Charity and Chastity in the first two books of the trilogy, but as Westworth wraps the series up, he introduces us to Charm.

troc2What happens in the book? I can do no better than to quote a line from the best motorbike song ever written. Like the biker outlaw James in Richard Thompson’s awesome Vincent Black Lightning 1952, JJ is “running out of road …running out of breath,” Stoner is surrounded by brutal enemies on all sides, and all the old acquaintances from whom he might expect a favour or three are walking by on the other side. This is one book which will certainly not end up in a charity shop or casually passed on to friends, because mine came with a personal touch. You folks are definitely not going to lay hands on my copy, and I’m afraid you will have to wait until the end of next month for yours. In the meantime, you can check out a mischievous and beautifully written piece by Frank Westworth in our features section, and watch this space for my full review of The Redemption of Charm.

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Having punched the air (in a elderly gentleman kind of way) at receiving the new Frank Westworth, I then joyfully repeated the gesture when I found that my second parcel contained the new novel by James Oswald. Apart from having one of the more interesting ( bonesand demanding) day jobs of current authors, Oswald has achieved what might have seemed to be an impossible task. He has created a engaging and totally believable Scottish copper who, over the space of six previous novels, has sharp-elbowed his way in the room crowded with such characters as John Rebus and Logan McRea.

Oswald’s Edinburgh Detective is Tony McLean, and Written In Bones has McLean once again up to his elbows in a sinister and mysterious murder. A body is found in a tree in The Meadows, Edinburgh’s scenic parkland, and the forensics suggest the corpse has fallen from a great height.

McLean has to decide whether it was an accident, or a murder designed to send a chilling message. His work is made more complex by the fact that the dead man was a disgraced ex-cop turned criminal kingpin who has reinvented himself as a philanthropist. McLean’s investigation takes him back to Edinburgh’s haunted past, and through its underworld. He is forced to rub shoulders with some of the city’s most dangerous people and, in extreme contrast, folk who are among the most vulnerable on the capital’s streets.

Oswald’s day job? He farms on 350 acres in Fife, and when he is not delivering lambs or tending his pedigree Highland cattle, he writes best-selling crime novels such as this one, which is published by Penguin, and is out now.

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OUT OF BOUNDS … Between The Covers

Val HeaderThere’s an old expression that describes someone as “having a way with words’. There can’t be any contemporary writer who has a better “way with words” than Val McDermid. There are no dramatic flourishes, no histrionics and no scatter-gun blasts of redundant adjectives. What we have is simplicity, purity, and a command of language that is almost minimalist. She describes DCI Karen Pirie, thus:

“…a wardrobe that always looked slightly rumpled;
a haircut that never quite delivered what it had promised in the salon.
Women never felt threatened by her,
and men treated her like a wee sister or a favourite auntie.”

 This is the fourth book featuring Karen Pirie, but newcomers learn just enough of Pirie’s backstory. Her lover, a fellow police officer has been killed. She is coping with her grief, but not easily. She tells civilians that she is attached to the Police Scotland Historic Cases Unit. The reality is that she – and her nice-but-dim assistant, DC Jason ‘The Mint’ Murray – are the PSHCU. An idiot boy and his mates steal a Land Rover, and decide to test it to destruction by driving over roundabouts. It works once, but the second time, the four-by-four flips, killing the hapless passengers and delivering driver Ross Garvie to the local hospital ICU. A routine DNA test links him to an unsolved rape and murder in Glasgow, years earlier. It clearly wasn’t him, but who was it?

 To add to Pirie’s complicated life, a mentally troubled man is found shot through the head beside Loch Leven. He was harmless, occasionally foolish and always garrulous, but why was he a threat? Did the fact that his mother had been killed in an assumed IRA assassination mark him out for this totally unwanted attention? The trail of Ross Garvie’s DNA leads Pirie through a minefield of botched investigations, incorrect assumptions and misdeeds sheltering behind fiercely protected rights to privacy.

 As you might expect, McDermid is completely at home in her geographical surroundings. We have the stark contrasts of the historic streets and alleyways of Edinburgh and the city’s brutal and depressing tower blocks clinging to its suburban coat tails. All too rarely, Karen Pirie gets to sit in her beautifully situated apartment, and we share her reverie as she looks out over the dark waters of the Firth of Forth, and across to the lights twinkling away on the Fife shore. The setting of the novel is cleverly done, but it is just one piece of the jigsaw – along with the fascinating details which make up the police procedural aspects of the story.

 McDermid puts most of the pieces in place for us, but leaves us plenty to do for ourselves, and the completed picture is one that shows jealousy, human frailty, the sheer darkness of some people’s lives – but also a glittering thread of compassion and redemption. If the novel inspires you to check up on Karen Pirie’s backstory, then you will find it in The Distant Echo (2003), A Darker Domain (2008), and The Skeleton Road (2014)

It is lazy of critics to talk about “Queens” of crime, but since the deaths of PD James and Ruth Rendell, there is only one heir to the throne. McDermid just gets better and better with every book. Some writers grab us by the throat and drag us through the narrative; there are others who take us by the hand and lead us; McDermid simply has to beckon – and we follow.

You can follow the link to see your buying choices for Out of Bounds

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