February was Scottish crime fiction month for me. And what an excellent time I had, too.
LOSS - Tony Black
Published: February 2010
Protagonist: Gus Dury
First Lines: 'Calls in the middle of the night rarely bring good news.'
Gus Dury is back with his wife, Debs, although their relationship is fragile. Also fragile is Gus' new-found sobriety. Relationship and sobriety are both threatened when Gus' brother is murdered and Gus, needless to say, resists all exhortations to leave the investigation to the police. His own attempts to find his brother's killer put him on the wrong side of just about everybody - the law, Debs, and some seriously dangerous men. Sometimes it seems as though Gus' only friends are his dog, Usual, and the unopened quarter bottle of whisky Gus keeps in his pocket. Luckily for Gus, he does have two good friends who step in and help him, without thought for their own safety. As Gus struggles to come to terms with the loss of his brother, things get darker and more dangerous. Wonderfully written, tough, edgy, and very dark, but with the odd flash of humour, LOSS made me cry at the end. Tony Black is a brilliant writer and I'm glad to see that the fourth in the series is out in July.
THE LOST SISTER - Russel McLean
Published: October 2009
First Lines: 'He doesn't waste a moment. Lets go of the axe, brings both hands round on either side of my head and slams them together.'
Hard-boiled Dundee PI McNee is called upon to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl. He's reluctant, since the girl is the god-daughter of David Burns - someone that McNee is not particularly fond of, and that's putting it lightly. McNee lets himself be beguiled by his dislike of Burns - as well as his desire to right some wrongs - as he investigates the secrets and lies that lead him to become more and more emotionally involved in the case. Brutal, chilling, pacy and dramatic, THE LOST SISTER is superb - but very sad. I felt melancholic from about half way through and burst into tears at the end (it seems a pattern is developing!) McNee is an excellent character - tough as nails on the outside, but much softer on the inside - something he does his best to hide. He is uncompromising about right and wrong, his moral compass is firmly set, and his prickly exterior hides a troubled and isolated person who just can't get close to people. You don't know whether to hug him or punch him. Russel McLean spins a fine and expertly told tale.
A DARKER DOMAIN - Val McDermid
Published: September 2008
Setting: Fife, Scotland and Tuscany, Italy
Protagonist: DI Karen Pirie
Series?: I think it's a standalone
First Lines: 'The voice is soft, like the darkness that encloses them.'
DI Karen Pirie, head of Fife's cold case review team is intrigued when a young woman comes in to report the disappearance of her father twenty-five years before, during the miners' strike. He was last seen in 1984 in the small mining village where he lived. At the time, everyone thought he'd joined a group of miners who had betrayed their friends and families by going off to 'scab' at a coal mine down in England, even though it seems to be out of character. In addition, new evidence has turned up in a kidnap case involving the daughter and grandson of the richest man in Scotland. Her bosses want her to concentrate on the kidnapping, but Karen is determined to look into the disappearance of the miner. This is a very cleverly told story with multi layered plot-lines, locations and times. It's full of atmosphere and social history as Val McDermid vividly shows the breakdown of a community and the suffering, grievances and bitterness which have cast long shadows. Intelligent and tightly plotted with twists upon twists and turns upon turns. An excellent read which kept me up.
NAMING THE BONES - Louise Welsh
Published: March 2010
Setting: Edinburgh, Glasgow and Lismore
Protagonist: Murray Watson
First Lines: 'Murray Watson slit the seal on the cardboard box in front of him and started to sort through the remnants of a life.'
Glasgow University professor Dr Murray Watson is taking a year's sabbatical to write a book about obscure poet Archie Lunan - a man who wrote one book of poetry and died young, over two decades before, in a boating accident off a small Scottish island. Murray's task is not an easy one - he has very little information, and no-one seems particularly keen to talk to him. As Murray delves into the poet's life, he wonders whether there's any point to his research. Murray's own life is lonely and troubled and he seems to drift aimlessly. He's having a loveless affair, he has a chilly relationship with his brother - his only remaining family, and he drinks too much. The book not only tells what happened to Lunan, but also puts Murray's own life under the microscope and looks at love, death, art and obsession. Despite its length and seemingly leisurely pace, NAMING THE BONES is a fast read. It's atmospheric with a great sense of place and a very gothic tone. The real stand-out for me though was the characters. Even the most minor character is vivid and memorable, even those only on the page for a short time.
RANDOM - Craig Robertson
Published: April 2010
Protagonist: The Cutter
First Lines: 'She was talking but I couldn't take anything in'
A serial killer know as The Cutter is making Glasgow's citizens a little on edge. The killer seems to have scant regard for the police, and has decided that the best way to make people sit up and take notice is to get the Press involved. The police are baffled by the seemingly random murders. The victims have nothing in common, each one is dispatched in a different way and with ruthless efficiency, and everything about the killings appears to be totally random. The only reason the police are linking the murders at all is because after each one DS Rachel Narey receives the severed little finger of the victim's right hand. Dark, violent and unsettling, the book is told from the cold and chilling point of view of the serial killer. There is a reason behind the killings, and the reason is one which should have made me feel some sympathy towards the killer. It didn't. He's as frosty and dangerous as an icicle hammered into your heart. But his story is compelling and it's a clever trick to make me want to keep reading about a character who made my skin crawl.
FALLING - Gordon Brown
Published: June 2009
Protagonist: Ensemble cast
First Lines: 'The door to the toilet slams open and I turn to the noise.'
Mild-mannered accountant Charlie Wiggs is minding his own business in the office toilet, when two thugs burst in, grab him and take him to the roof of the building, where they proceed to dangle him over the side. Nobody, including Charlie, the two thugs, and George the maintenance man who sees it all happening, are quite clear why Charlie is being mistreated in this way. FALLING is a fast-paced read with an ensemble cast, told from multiple points of view. Some of the narratives overlap which means that, as the hows and whys are gradually revealed, we get to see them from numerous viewpoints. A breezy caper novel with dark undertones.
In March I am only going to read books in translation. Well, apart from this little beauty which I have just received, and which is next on my list to read. WATCHING THE WHEELS COME OFF is one of the first two books from maXcrime (the lovely people who are publishing OLD DOGS), and it's by Mike Hodges (director of the original (and best) GET CARTER). It's described as "a delicious dark slice of black crime comedy". Perfect.