The Isle of Lewis is the most desolate and harshly beautiful place in Scotland. When a bloody murder on the island bears the hallmarks of a similar slaying in Edinburgh, police detective Fin Macleod is dispatched north to investigate. Since Fin himself was raised on the island, the investigation represents not only a journey home but a voyage into his past. Each year twelve island men sail out to a remote and treacherous rock called An Sgeir on a perilous quest to slaughter nesting seabirds. No longer necessary for survival, this rite of passage is still fiercely defended.
Peter May's Lewis Trilogy isn't a new undertaking, originally published in 2009, but it's one of those series I've had flagged in my audio book queue for a long time, and recently I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of available listening time and a desire for something that was dark, atmospheric and delivered in my favourite of all accents.
The trilogy is based around policeman and child of Lewis Island, Fin MacLeod. Born and raised on Lewis, he was the boy who left for a university education in Edinburgh. Raised in part by an aunt, his parents having died in a car accident when he was young, there's something more buried in Fin's attitude to the place of his birth. When he's sent back home after a murder on the island that bears a resemblance to one he investigated in Edinburgh, he is instantly drawn back into the small, deeply inter-connected and multi-generational complications that are small community interactions and history.
The island setting feels like the archetypal closed community. Insular, inter-related, and externally private, the closed room type setting is further enhanced by the shared history of the investigator, the victim and the investigated, especially as reminiscences start to fill in their shared past. Alternating chapters of past and present help in following the audio version of this book in particular, and the narrator does an excellent job in varying tone, pace and voice all the way through meaning that you don't lose the thread of who is talking, thinking or reminiscing. And it doesn't hurt at all that the Gaelic contributions are lyrical and absolutely beautiful to listen to.
There's a hefty dose of romantic entanglement in this book as well with just about everybody carrying a sad burden and a hefty dose of love lost, loved ones dead, regret and much longing. After now listening to the first couple of books in the trilogy this is a theme that continues forward and may be a little heavy-handed for some readers (listeners) as you really do find yourself being dragged back down into the personal on a lot of occasions. Given the eventual solution, and motivation for the crime(s) that have occurred in the two books so far, it kind of makes sense that the personal is a strong component, and an incredibly messy one to boot.
Ultimately though, THE BLACKHOUSE was an atmospheric, dark, brooding, overwhelmingly sad story, which worked really well as an audio book. Especially if it's tweaking the same sorts of cultural memory (longing) that it did for this reader.
Review - The Accident on the A35, Graeme Macrae Burnet
The methodical but troubled Chief Inspector Georges Gorski visits the wife of a lawyer killed in a road accident, the accident on the A35. The case is unremarkable, the visit routine.
Mme Barthelme—alluring and apparently unmoved by the news—has a single question: where was her husband on the night of the accident? The answer might change nothing, but it could change everything. And Gorski sets a course for what can only be a painful truth.
But the dead man’s reticent son is also looking for answers. And his search will have far more devastating consequences.
Graeme Macrea Burnet’s first novel was presented as the translation of an obscure French crime novel written and published in the early 1980s by French author Raymond Brunet (note the anagram). The conceit of that novel – The Disappearance of Adéle Bedaeu – was deepened by the creation of a faux trailer for the film version of the book. After his Booker prize nominated His Bloody Project, Burnet returns to the world of Brunet. The Accident on the A35 is, according to the preface, the translation of an unpublished Brunet manuscript, released after his mother’s death.
Once again, the book centres around detective George Gorski and the small, seemingly dead end town of Saint Louis in which he lives. When the book opens, Gorski’s wife has left him and he is called to the scene of a car accident on a nearby road. The scene appears to be an open and shut case but there are some odd details and Gorski allows himself to be charmed by the dead man’s widow into investigating further. At the same time, the dead man’s son Raymond, after finding an address in his father’s drawer of a house in a nearby town, is also both investigating and trying to grow up.
The Accident on the A35 Is written in the mould of a classic French crime novel, it is intensely focussed on the characters of Gorski and Raymond and is less about the solution to the crime, if indeed there is one, than the impact that the events surrounding the death have on them. Gorski gets caught up with an unsolved crime in a nearby town and Lambert, the shonky detective running the case. Raymond finds himself shoplifting and becoming obsessed with a girl called Delph who lives in the block of apartments that he has been watching.
It is unclear why Burnet feels the need to play the meta-narrative games with his crime fiction except maybe to find an excuse to write novels in this style. And he does it well, crafting a crime novel that is more about the effects of a crime and its investigation and resolution than a crime itself. But this device does provide another, potentially deeper layer to the text and the end notes invite the reader to consider how autobiographical the fiction is in relation to the (also fictional) life of Raymond Brunet.
Book Review - Rather be the Devil, Ian Rankin
The death of Maria Turquand had all the ingredients that would have appealed to the salacious public forty years ago; a beautiful woman, gangsters, drugs and rock stars. Not everyone from those glory days has moved on from Edinburgh and it pleases retired detective John Rebus that this is a cold case with connections to the present. Old crimes can still wound. Secrets from the past can forever alter those that are forever tasked with keeping them hidden.
It's quite possible that there will be a few moments during the reading of this novel where you will want to punch the air in pride. Our man Rebus still has the sharpest wit around and eases his way around tricky situations with the practiced air of one who expects little of others but demands much of himself. The acceptance of DI Siobhan Clarke and DI Malcolm Fox that Rebus will always a part of their investigative lives is well and truly established in RATHER BE THE DEVIL; it is both sweet and savvy of them both. The Rebus novels remain fiendishly clever and there's that continuing comfort also in knowing that John Rebus will not twilight out fighting the good fight alone. Having the serving Scotland police force continue to accept the input of an ex detective like Rebus, who always unashamedly operated within his own unique moral code, is supremely satisfying to his long time fans.
RATHER BE THE DEVIL is not quite new light through old windows but by novel's end you are quite refreshed and confident that this series will continue to go from strength to strength, even with the changing of the guard. The world of Rebus is now very insular – need a cop, use Malcolm and Siobhan, need a criminal lord, there’s always big Ger Cafferty etc – but the novels continue to be loaded to the hilt with vicious crimes and complicated agendas. RATHER BE THE DEVIL is a tighter work than a few of its series predecessors in that the series strengths are being employed all at once to produce an absorbing crime novel that would hold its own to a new reader, plus reaffirm the devotion of an existing fan of author Ian Rankin.
Review - COME TO HARM, Catriona McPherson
For Keiko Nishisato, leaving Tokyo is a rare adventure, but it’s living in the quiet little town of Painchton, Scotland, that shows her how far she is from home.
Having never read anything by Catriona McPherson before, this made it into the To Be Read Mountain based on the blurb - which appealed. Looking at her back catalogue this is an author who is not afraid to try different things and COME TO HARM is a perfect example of that difference.
Set in a small Scottish town, Japanese student Keiko Nishisato is a student in residence, sponsored by the local Traders association, provided with an apartment to live in, more food and supplies that you can poke a stick at, and enough to keep a student of Psychology scribbling notes on a minute by minute basis.
This feels, needless to say, like a rather odd setup. Particularly as the university at which Nishisato is studying is some distance from the town, and because of the slightly eccentric nature of many of the local townsfolk. And the slight sense of menace, particularly as Nishisato starts to pick up some none-too-subtle signals.
Not everybody would be comfortable living above a butcher's shop, and there is much in the behaviour of Mrs Poole, the widow of the recently dead butcher, and mother of two sons - the brooding and overweight Malcolm who loves his job in the shop, and the slight and more edgy brother Murray - not so happy to be in the shop. His workshop where he rebuilds motorbikes and works out on his elaborate gym equipment seems like a much more comfortable location for him. Needless to say there's a spark of attraction between Nishisato and Murray Poole, although their chances of much time together are dinted somewhat by the persistence of the town traders who have worked out a schedule for feeding and amusing Nishisato that would make anyone wilt.
To get COME TO HARM you're going to have to accept that a Japanese student could step into a local town and instantly get the language, and the culture. Get it enough to pick up on some odd nuances and subtle behaviours that in the cool hard light of reflection, seem like a pretty big bridge to have walked over. Perhaps it's a testament to the pace of the story, and the engaging way in which it's told, that any niggling doubts are easy to push to one side. Of course there's always that slight feeling that there are lines to be drawn here ... butchers shop ... backyard slaughterhouse ... odd goings on ... missing girls ... and to be honest, this reader was feeling more than a bit let down that something so obvious was building here. If you're suffering from the same belief, then continue reading. You might be as surprised too. Very surprised.
Happily surprised by the ending of COME TO HARM, pleasing surprised by how enjoyable this book was, not so surprised that the rest of the standalones from this author are now on the To Be Read list.
Review - THE 45% HANGOVER, Stuart MacBride
A brilliantly twisty tale from the No. 1 bestselling author of the Logan McRae series. Including an extract from his new Logan novel, The Missing and the Dead.
It’s the night of the big Referendum, and all Acting Detective Inspector Logan McRae has to do is find a missing ‘No’ campaigner. Should be easy enough…
But, as usual, DCI Steel has plans of her own. As the votes are counted there’s trouble brewing in the pubs and on the streets of Aberdeen.
Logan’s picked up a promising lead, but all is not quite what it seems, and things are about to go very, very wrong…
A perfectly formed piece of glorious over the topness featuring Logan McRae, DCI Steel and the recent Scottish independence referendum. Which of course isn't going to bode well. I mean it's part of the world that gave us Whisky. And people who drink whisky. When they are happy, sad, or stressed. All of which DCI Steel manages to be during the lead up to, and the night of the count.
Not that McRae particularly cares. As usual he's just trying to get a shift under his belt, and maybe find a missing 'No' campaigner. Which, well, it ends hilariously. And vaguely disturbingly.
As you'd expect. The 45% HANGOVER is a perfectly formed little delivery of hilarity combined with a refreshingly honest viewpoint on the whole independence question. But a word of warning - perhaps don't read the concluding bits on a full stomach. And certainly not if you've had way too many whisky's.
Review - THE MISSING AND THE DEAD, Stuart MacBride
One mistake can cost you everything…
When you catch a twisted killer there should be a reward, right? What Acting Detective Inspector Logan McRae gets instead is a ‘development opportunity’ out in the depths of rural Aberdeenshire. Welcome to divisional policing – catching drug dealers, shop lifters, vandals and the odd escaped farm animal.
Then a little girl’s body washes up just outside the sleepy town of Banff, kicking off a massive manhunt. The Major Investigation Team is up from Aberdeen, wanting answers, and they don’t care who they trample over to get them.
Sure Logan McRae's now an Acting Detective Inspector, in uniform. In the backend of nowhere, with a good team working with him, especially when you realise the number of cows they have to chase off roads. His girlfriend has improved a little, she's now in a care home, still uncommunicative, her nursing being paid for by McRae which is creating certain "problems" in his personal lifestyle. To make matters worse, his role in a high profile arrest causes a court case to collapse which brings the higher-ups down on his head and everything he does, says or has is questioned. Except for the inconvenient bits - like the pints of Lentil Soup he's living on just to keep the budget balanced.
Meanwhile in this sleepy little community, the discovery of a young girl's body brings an MIT to town, and with it DI Steel, because after all, where there's McRae, there will be a stumping, whinging, scratching, bitching and complaining Steel. Needless to say the murder will be (mis)handled by the MIT, McRae's team will balance all sorts of day to day policing with a bit of door kicking on the murder as well, they'll get out there after some local drug dealers, and generally deal with the idiots, the missing paedophiles, the weather, the bosses, the mud and the cows in a timely if not slightly grumpy manner.
It's the humour of these books that does it for me. That and the poignancy lurking round corners, ready to mug you when you least expect it. It's the lunacy of so many that McRae deals with, and even in his own head on occasions that works. It's the humanity of his concern for the mother of a missing little girl. It's like a night at the pub with your mad mates that you swear you're going to stop hanging around with because they always get you into shtoom. But then they get you out of it again. They are the team that you know is going to show up when the proverbial hits the oscillating device and the only defences available are tennis racquets and determination.
At the heart of all books in this series, there's always a busy, multi-actioned plot - just like you'd expect in any police station on any particular day. There's the high-profile case, the MIT and higher-ups strutting their stuff, and there's the day to day - the drug dealers, the addicts getting the shit kicked out of them, the people that McRae and his team just wish would get their act together. There's also a strong sense of camaraderie and co-operation in this team, as there is in most teams that McRae works with - with the token dopey bugger that everyone does the heavy-lifting for.
Relocating McRae to small-town Scotland gives this outing a slightly different feel, as does the idea that he's back in uniform, running a shift. Taking Steel with him is a classic example of a fish out of water scenario, but then just about everywhere Steel goes she "stands out". His ongoing, low-key care and love for his girlfriend remains such a highlight, as does his relationship with his biological child, Steel and her wife Susan's daughter. There's loyalty, care, concern and relationships between workmates, friends and colleagues, and that sense of responsibility to the victims that stands out in each book in this series. Alongside, sometimes, a bit of graphic violence and nastiness. Bit like life really.
There's so much in this series that, for this reader, is a highlight, and THE MISSING AND THE DEAD is right up there with the best of the lot of them.
DEADLY CODE - Lin Anderson
Dr. Rhona Macleod has been called in to investigate a grisly discovery: a severed foot, caught in the fishing net of a trawler. Where is the rest of the body, and who is the dead man? What links him to a sinister secret society? And why is the Ministry of Defense so keen to shut down the case? Rhona’s investigations embroil her in an international conspiracy from which she will be lucky to escape alive.
DEADLY CODE is the 3rd book in the Dr Rhona Macleod series, a series, which up until now I've really enjoyed, but for some reason this one didn't work. Mind you, terrific sense of place, very atmospheric what with Macleod off in the remote Scottish Isles battling the evil menace of a cult of Scottish extremists. Or I think that's what they were. The big problem was that the plot was a bit too silly at points. Not that the idea of extremists of any kind is a bad concept, but not where there needs to be so much coincidence and frankly, a whole heap of heavy lifting to get Macleod into the action, get her to the various locations, and keep her involved. And the resolution is one of those extreme leaps of science that, sure, could happen. But hasn't as yet. And I kind of like my crime fiction to stay away from the realms of speculative / science fiction. Having said that, my main problem with this book was the enormous leaps of coincidence and a certain feeling of convenience about the whole thing that meant it didn't work. Onwards to the next in the series for this reader. (I understand there's 6 of them now).