The first body is chained to a stake: strangled, and stabbed, with a burning tyre around its neck. But is this a gangland execution or something much darker?
Look, let's just admit that I'm a huge fan of this series and get it over and done with. Love DI Steel, love her glorious over the topness, love McRae's constant sooking and all being put upon. Love the madness of the world in which they have to try to operate as functioning police members, love the supporting cast, love the gallows humour. Love the whole damn thing. Even love those that don't quite live up to the other books in the series (and let's face it - we're talking bees d's worth of not living up to that which came before).
I'll therefore plead to some lacking in objectivity.
CLOSE TO THE BONE has the requisite things going pear-shaped left right and centre - with cases piling up at the door refusing to maintain an orderly line. Including McRae balancing a personal life that almost, in the last book, accidentally veered towards normal, committed and stable. Meanwhile Steele is behaving like everyone's worst nightmare caricature. Even more-so in this book as she's dragged kicking, screaming, bitching and moaning into "Management". I even, for a very brief period in my life, found myself interested in the outcome of a wildly popular paranormal novel, but only because it looks like some nutcase is basing a series of murders on scenarios from that book.
But, more importantly, underneath the lunacy and the caricature there are little ripples in the reality. Sure Steel is considerably more over the top in the book than she's been in others. Maybe because the idea of Management scares her more than babies, shared parenthood and responsibility. Okay so McRae seems to be playing a slightly straighter bat on the one hand, and yet, maybe this settling down thing has some complications that he's not being completely up front about.
With MacBride there's often been that thing in the undercurrent, that hint of the reality underneath the gallows humour and that glimpse behind the mask that's intriguing. That and the over the top nature of the characters as a coping mechanism for what they must deal with on a day to day basis. Sure in this book some of those elements are stretched out to the point where you can actually see through the elastic. Don't care. Loved it.
THE LONER - Quintin Jardine
Xavier (Xavi) Aislado is a gentle giant, half Spanish and half Scot, brought up in Edinburgh by his grandmother Paloma Puig, a ferocious old lady whose grim brand of care sees him into his teens, until his father moves back to Spain, leaving him to grow up fast. His emergence into manhood is colorful and eventful. After a short career as a professional footballer, he turns to journalism with a bloody introduction to the trade, as his first assignment ends in violent death.
A standalone novel from the author best known for his Bob Skinner series, THE LONER was a real surprise package.
Styled as an autobiographical account of the author's friend, journalist Xavier (Xavi) Ailsado, THE LONER is partially the recollections of the central character, partially the observations of the narrator. It's an affectionate telling of Xavi's life, from his beginnings in Scotland, the son of a local mother and a Spanish refugee. His father and grandparents having settled in Edinburgh after they were forced to flee from Franco's regime. It's a story of family that stays together and family that fractures all at once.
Xavi is a gentle giant of a man, raised by his grandmother, until she and his father, a successful businessman return to Spain, leaving him with money, a place to live, a real connection with them and the chance to grow into his own person. Despite his potential as a professional footballer, Xavi is not that upset when injury ends that possible career, as exposure to newspapers via his father's latest business venture - the media in Spain - has convinced him that journalism is what he really wants to do. His life seems comfortably, and somewhat boringly predestined, with a childhood sweetheart fiancé, a good job, a place to live, and a secure self-image and almost abnormal control for a young man of his age.
Told with great restraint, there is, however, a sense that something is not quite right drawing the reader in. It was actually quite surprising how quickly the book engaged, and kept the reader's interest, particularly as there isn't a crime up front, there's no investigation, there's nothing of the normal stylings that you expect in some measure from crime fiction. Told mostly from Xavi's viewpoint, interspersed with snippets that give the reader just enough clues or hints to wonder, the book is a slow burner. The structure is also intriguing, opening with a "co-author" note from Jardine, taking off in an autobiographical style, heading into the ups and downs of what seems, on the face of it, to be a reasonably ordinary life, not only is it very hard to tell where it's heading, it rapidly became just about impossible to not be intrigued.
Obviously, THE LONER is something a little different. It's not about the investigation of a crime or the identification of a perpetrator. It's not about justice or explanation or retribution. It's the story of strongly-held beliefs, love, and how truth can be manipulated, even if sometimes with the best of intentions. It's a character study and Xavi is the sort of character that many readers will feel a direct, close, personal and real connection with. It's also not a particularly straight-forward or even an always easy book to read. But it is a very memorable one.
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).
THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD - Ian Rankin
Malcolm Fox and his team from Internal Affairs are back. They've been sent to Fife to investigate whether fellow cops covered up for a corrupt colleague, Detective Paul Carter. Carter has been found guilty of misconduct with his own uncle, also in the force, having proved to be his nephew's nemesis. But what should be a simple job is soon complicated by intimations of conspiracy and cover-up - and a brutal murder, a murder committed with a weapon that should not even exist. The spiralling investigation takes Fox back in time to 1985, a year of turmoil in British political life.
If you, like me, have been more than a bit concerned about regular reading habits with the retirement of Rebus, I'm happy to report that at least I'm no longer fearful. Well about the loss of a fictional companion anyway. Now I can spend long periods of time worrying about Ian Rankin's health and hoping that all is going well with his writing. Because I'd really like to think there's more than a few Malcolm Fox books in the future, as this new series shapes up to be something well worth following.
It's probably not surprising that there are some aspects between the two series that are similar. There is a central character with a difficult back story, albeit with differences between Fox and Rebus. Fox isn't as comfortable in his flaws, he's taking steps to try to get his act together. It makes sense that a flawed man is working for The Complaints. It's not surprising that a man who has done the best and the worst can cope with the best and the worst in others.
Another similarity is the way that the books are perfectly balanced between a character study and a good, solid plot. In THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD The Complaints are investigating allegations about a single individual - ex-Detective Paul Carter and what looks like a cover-up by his fellow officers. Fox and his small team are forced closer together simply by being outsiders, but this book gives Rankin the chance to strengthen that team feeling, whilst also allowing them to rise as individuals - again not unlike the Rebus / Siobhan pairing.
Whilst Fox, his ailing father and his bitter and twisted sister remain the focus of the personal aspects of the book, there is a back story for all of the team building, just as the resentment of the cops that investigate other cops is growing. I must admit I'm finding that aspect - cops investigating other cops, and the things that are being hidden and why - part of what's particularly interesting about this series. Obviously because it is something different, but also because in Rankin's hands, it's not one-dimensional, and the mechanics of "investigation" of a crime remain forefront.
Whilst I'm happy that the occasional Rebus outing is still in the offing, I've also developed quite a liking for this new direction in a big hurry. Of course, there is always the fact that if Rankin published his to do list, I'd read that as well, but THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD is really a very good entry in this excellent new series.
CRIMESPOTTING - Introduced by Irvine Welsh
All the short stories here are brand new, specially commissioned and from a unique mix of bestselling crime writers. Each author was asked for a story which features a crime and is set in Edinburgh. The results range from hard-boiled police procedural to historical whodunit and from the wildly comic to the spookily supernatural.
I think I'll just keep saying this until I run out of breath completely - but really, the world needs more quality collections of Crime Short Stories. CRIMESPOTTING, a fabulous little volume put together as a fund raiser for The ONECITY Trust, is subtitled "An Edinburgh Crime Collection". It features stories by lesser and well known authors including (in alphabetical order) Lin Anderson, Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Christopher Brookmyre, John Burnside, Isla Dewar, A.L. Kennedy, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin and James Robertson. (There are some stories here which go on to be included in the Mammoth Book of Best British Crime which I'm going to mention in a review soonish). The requirement for inclusion was that the story included a "crime" and was set in Edinburgh. The results are remarkedly diverse.
Needless to say I've been reading a few short story collections recently. Mostly because I find them such a fascinating form of writing, although I also find them almost invaluable for filling in the dreaded "waiting time" that seems to go with life these days. One thing I'm increasingly becoming aware of is that a really really good short story can't be as easy to write as you would think. A Crime short story in particular still has to provide a reader with some of the elements of the genre that you expect - a crime / investigation / resolution / explanation / consideration / illumination and so on.
What was immediately obvious in CRIMESPOTTING is that there is an incredibly high standard of story-telling in each of these entries - although there are obviously also absolute standout entries. To be honest I'd have a bit of trouble voting for my specific favourite as a lot of them appealed immensely. Luckily, there's probably something for fans of all sorts of different sub-genres.
For this reader, CRIMESPOTTING (and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime for that matter) really were a master class in short story reading. Good enough to go back and reread many of the entries, CRIMESPOTTING became a permanent resident of the car glovebox a while ago. It will head back there after this review has been written as flicking back through the book there's a couple of entries I'd like to read again.
DARK BLOOD - Stuart MacBride
Everyone deserves a second chance...
Richard Knox has served his time, so why shouldn't he be allowed to live wherever he wants? Yes, he was convicted of a brutal abduction and rape, but he's seen the error of his ways. Found God. Wants to leave his dark past in Newcastle and make a new start.
Or so he says.
The problem with an author making it onto my "Pre-Order IMMEDIATELY list" is that once the book arrives I have that dreaded "do I read immediately or hoard" dilemma. It's easier with some of my all time favourite authors - there's a few, well not to put too fine a point on it, aren't as young as they used to be. Stuart MacBride, on the other hand, is a young man. Last time I set eyes on him he looked to be in remarkably good health. But still, you never know. Publishers are queer folk and they may suddenly have a brain freeze, or worse still, Stuart may just get distracted by .. well gardening stuff... and forget to write the next one.
So I've come up with a reasonable compromise with these books which is simply "hang onto them until you can stand the suspense no longer!". I held out pretty well with DARK BLOOD but I'm really really pleased I didn't keep it up forever (and the latest book has arrived so it's not like I don't have another one to hoard ... just for a little while.)
DARK BLOOD starts out with one of the best opening sequences I have read in years. One of those opening pieces that make you sit up straight and pay attention. From there the reader is launched into a world of missing informants, sawn-off sledgehammers, fake money, counterfeit goods and jewellery shop robberies. Add to the standard mayhem of Aberdeen on a normal day (well a MacBride normal day anyway), and about the only thing that McRae, Steel and the entire Aberdeen command can agree on is that having one of England's most notorious sex killers "dumped" into their patch on his release from jail is just about the height of all cheek. Which is bad enough, but a Northumbrian DSI tagging along to "keep an eye on things" is dangerously close to taking liberties.
There is always something comforting about returning to a favoured series character - and Logan McRae is one of my favourite characters, although DI Steel is not above giving him a bit of a nudge. Having said that, other readers of these books will be wondering what exactly I'm sniffing if I think McRae, Steel or any of the circumstances of MacBride's books are comforting. But in a strange (okay so slightly twisted) way, they are comforting. That's not to say that things also don't move on in their lives, albeit sometimes slowly. McRae's been doing quite a strong line of greatly put upon, martyrdom in recent books, but in DARK BLOOD he's actually firing up a bit, getting a bit bolshie. Which needless to say doesn't go down well. Nobody could possibly have imagined it would go down so badly that DI Steel would be giving him "advice" on how to get on with others mind you. But advice she does dole out. At the same time that the impending birth of her child is making her life a lot more complicated than she thought it would... especially with conciliatory and caring not exactly coming naturally to DI Steel. As usual McRae doesn't just have to deal with Steel, DI Beattie seems to be going out of his way to behave like a prat, whilst all the time journalist Colin Miller is needling away at the police in general and McRae in particular.
The problem with an ongoing series has to be that it's sometimes too easy to slip into familiar patterns, particularly where the characters and their interactions are concerned. Avoiding this DARK BLOOD has something a little more edgy about McRae - sure he's still a bit of a martyr to the cause, but there's just the occasional flash of a fight back. DI Steel is still delightfully, gloriously over the top, but she's softening just a little, impending parenthood is obviously going to have some sort of affect, but what exactly... well some things aren't to be contemplated too closely. DARK BLOOD also veers away from the more gruesome aspects of some of the recent books, and works harder on a really tight, taut, pacey and interesting plot. There's a realistic feel of pressure - external and within, of competing priorities, and changing levels of urgency. It feels like each of these characters is doing a fine line of tight-rope juggling - personally and professionally. MacBride also isn't afraid to ditch popular characters, to put them in unexpected situations, to pick them up again, and generally to move his chess pieces where the will takes him. But, as always, there's a real underlying humour - some of it observational, some of it almost slapstick, but always with sneaking sense of great affection. The characters for each other, the author for his cast, and in the case of this reader, the reader for the whole package.
SANCTUM - Denise Mina
Lachlan Harriot is in a state of shock. His wife Susie has been convicted of the murder of serial killer Andrew Gow, a prisoner in her care. Unless Harriot can come up with grounds for an appeal in two weeks' time, Susie will be given a life sentence, depriving her of her two-year-old daughter.
In another classic example of reader blindsightedness (okay so that's probably not a word), I'd filed SANCTUM somewhere at the back of the bookcase and promptly forgot it was there. Such a relief to unearth it during a recent tidy up and to move it straight to the top of the reading pile. Interestingly, as I sat down to write up this mini-review I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising slightly as I think about Lachlan in particular again.
Originally published in 2002, if you've not read SANCTUM for whatever reason, now is as good a time as any to rectify the miss. From the author of the much acclaimed Garnethill trilogy, this is a very different sort of a book. It's written in first person perspective, and whilst some readers are a bit leery of that, it works unbelievably well here. As SANCTUM explores the thinking of a husband whose wife is guilty of a murder, the use of Lachlan's own voice provides an intimacy that's disconcerting. It creates an insulated, personal, very intimate relationship between the character and the reader, and provides an author with Mina's skill with some serious options for manipulation (of the fairest possible kind mind you). Lachlan starts off very much as a man in grief, but it's not long before he becomes profoundly creepy, controlling and complaining. Other characters who come and go from his life astutely comment on him at points in the book. Susie, his wife, is distant, perfect, ethereal, extremely suspicious. There are others within this story - relatives, Susie's colleague, the live in help but ultimately this book is about Lachlan - even more so than it is about Susie and the man she murdered.
Lachlan, frankly, makes the reader extremely uncomfortable in his presence and you'd be excused for having some sympathy for Susie - as extreme an escape plan murder of another may well be. Sympathies ebb and flow, as ultimately the truth behind the murder is revealed. The Garnethill Trilogy remains one of my all time favourite sets of books - but SANCTUM is a fantastic stand-alone that was just absolutely un-put-downable.
THE EDGE OF MADNESS - Michael Dobbs
Cyber-war. Not the sort that steals identities and raids bank accounts, but the kind that brings nations to their knees, switching off their energy lifelines, crippling financial markets, starving their leaders of authority, making populations panic.
It doesn't seem to matter how adamant I am about the subject matter that I just don't like, there just always seems to be "that book" that comes along and shoots all my prejudices out of the water. THE EDGE OF MADNESS is about cyber-war. The threat of annihilation of the free world at the hand of a shadowy threat, hiding behind computer terminals, in darkened rooms, hidden deep in the new Big Bad Evil nation. The nameless, faceless, threat - as the blurb of this book puts it "no guns, no missiles, no vapour trails stretching like accusing fingers across the skies".
THE EDGE OF MADNESS sees an unlikely gathering deep in the wilds of Scotland. The location where the Prime Minister of Britain pulls together the leaders of Russia and the United States when Britain realises that there is a massive cyber-attack being rolled out against all of them. Sending nuclear reactors into meltdown, crippling financial markets, playing with military hardware guidance systems, deep inside medical systems; the threat is all the more terrifying as it is completely faceless, completely silent and seemingly impossible to find or track. There is only this small, highly secretive gathering of these world leaders and their closest advisors between shut-down and survival.
As is the way with these sorts of thrillers it seems to come down to one man to save the day. In this case, Harry Jones - SAS-trained, resourceful, unorthodox, man on the spot.
It's a really interesting premise that's propounded in this book - cyber-attack, one rogue nation (in this case China) against the once unlikely partnership of Britain, Russia and the USA. The scenario is really good - and the evil (in the person of one Chinese General) is ramped right up to the maximum; the good guys hampered by their own petty squabbles and rats in all their ranks. Possibly what is best about the entire nature of the "threat" in this book is that it all seems feasible, even possible. Somehow you can sort of see this one working as the author as laid it out. And that's from somebody who normally finds these sorts of cyber-threat books cause more groans and eye-rolling per page than just about any other sort of thriller.
Unfortunately, the early promise in THE EDGE OF DARKNESS fizzled out rapidly at the end. It was always really really difficult to see how Harry was going to stop this particular evil, deep inside an impenetrable nation, but when the resolution sort of all fudged into a cloud of confusion and fires and rushing around in Scotland, whilst seemingly unconnected events in China sorted everything else out, it was disappointing to say the least.
NAMING THE BONES - Louise Welsh
Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here?
His quiet life researching the lives of writers in university libraries seems a world apart, and yet it is because of the mysterious poet Archie Lunan, dead for thirty years, that Murray now finds himself scrabbling in the dirt on the remote island of Lismore.
Perhaps I should warn readers of this review that Louise Welsh is one of my all time favourite authors. NAMING THE BONES was therefore greeted with some excited anticipation in these parts. One of the things that I really like about Welsh's books is the dark, introspective nature of her characters and the settings, as well as irresistible Gothic quirkiness.
NAMING THE BONES is the story of Dr Murray Watson; academic, guilty lover, conflicted brother, writer of a poet's biography. Murray's love affair with Archie Lunan's writing had started with a slim paperback collection of poems. Lunan wasn't a very prolific poet, but who knows what he could have produced had he not died so strangely, so young.
Murray's research into Lunan's life is fuelled by a small, cryptic collection of papers stored in a cardboard box. An odd mixture of rambling jottings, memento's, an old address book, there's not a lot for Murray to go on. Small clues however do set him off on what is really a detecting job - finding out more about Lunan's life and his friends in a series of small steps, revealing very complicated and intertwined lives. Meanwhile Murray struggles with his failing relationship with his brother - an art installation which Murray feels is highly exploitative starts to create a rift between the brothers, which is exacerbated as Murray finds his brother is being unfaithful.
Welsh's earlier books have always had a bit of a twist, a touch of quirky and an elaborately Gothic feel to them. NAMING THE BONES doesn't quite start out like those earlier books, and Murray seems, particularly in this day and age, strangely normal. Including the lustful affair with his Head of Department's wife, Murray has relationship difficulties all over the place and he just seems somewhat naive and disconnected from the realities of life. Certainly his admiration of Lunan is a little odd to start off with, one short volume of poetry too insignificant to have had such a profound and long-lasting affect on such a renowned academic.
Given that NAMING THE BONES started off with less of the Gothic than normally expected, I was taken by how quickly the book become difficult to put down. This reader found herself increasingly involved in Murray's telling of his own tale, increasingly taken by his bafflement over Lunan's own relationships and why this man killed himself. Add to that Murray's own hamfisted methods of handling obsession, confrontation and disappointment and the story quickly becomes a less about researching a biography and a lot more about the mystery of Lunan and those around him.
Ultimately Murray takes himself off to the dreary, mysterious, damp, windy, threatening and even vaguely odd island of Archie's early life and death, and the resolution of the book takes place on this bleak, geographically and technologically isolated little island, with a good sprinkling of odd and normal locals, and a lot of rain, mud, wind and dark tracts of land.
This is exactly the sort of book that I just love. Cunningly witty, NAMING THE BONES is a mystery that's not immediately a mystery. A death that was explained, a sprinkling of odd clues and hints, and a whole lot more hidden under the surface of a lot lives.
PANDAEMONIUM - Christopher Brookmyre
The senior pupils of St Peter's High School are on retreat at a secluded outdoor activity centre, coming to terms with the murder of a fellow pupil through the means you would expect: counselling, contemplation, candid discussion and even prayer - not to mention booze, drugs, clandestine liaisons and as much partying as they can get away with.
Not so far away, the commanders of a top-secret military experiment, long-since spiralled out of control, fear they may have literally unleashed the forces of Hell.
Fans of Christopher Brookmyre's dark, black-comedic writing are probably going to do what I did when this book arrived. A bit of dignified happy dancing and a general clearing of the activity calendar to sit down for a jolly good read and, along the way, a lot of very undignified laughing. A lot of readers new to this writer may be stepping away from the book (and this review) in droves. But really - don't. To steal a famous phrase - do yourself a favour (perhaps this needs to come with a strong language alert).
Sure Christopher Brookmyre writes gory, savage, lunatic satire with little regard for "social sensibilities" or "political correctness". But within the lunacy of a bunch of school kids, pretty well intent on the things that teenagers have always been intent on - the booze, sex, drugs and partying bit of the recovery retreat; there is some fantastic sense and sensibility in the way that Brookmyre gives us a storyline, a morality play in many many ways and a set of characters to really get involved in.
It goes without saying that any military base, deep in the highlands of Scotland, that appears to have opened the very Gates to Hell, releasing horned creatures with long tails, is probably going to stuff it up. Calling in Cardinal Tullian of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith aka The Inquisition, allowing him to torture and torment the demons, and then announcing the shutdown of the place would obviously lead to a spot of sabotage, and the release of the demons of Hell. Which has to happen about the same time as a bunch of school children arrive in a slightly damaged bus at a resort very nearby. Of course the bus is damaged, a simple bus trip full of kids isn't going to be a method of transporting people from A to B in Brookmyre's hands - it's got to get a bit pear-shaped just to make sure that the group's chaperones arrive at the resort just that little bit frazzled to start off with.
And lunacy, gore, elaborate death scenes, and a hefty does of utter and total chaos needless to say happens. But in all this build-up, and within the night where all hell breaks lose, Brookmyre does what he does so well. Stereotypes are tipped on their heads, expectations turned inside out, people - kids; adults; bullies; goths; priests and the preachy; bitches and the sweet; the chaste and the profligate all step up to the mark, and you find yourself caring about each and everyone of them. You also find that what you see is not always what you get, and sometimes people are more than the sum of their external persona, and sometimes they're not. The portrayal of teenagers in this book is particularly delightful - and particularly reminiscent, and something I wish I'd read when I was that age and wondering why I was the only one in the world that thought / looked / behaved / stuck out like I did.
Undoubtedly extremely violent, gory and confrontational, (it's fiction for goodness sake, personally I'm not convinced that I need to worry I could be torn limb from limb by the demons of Hell in the middle of the Scottish Highlands), PANDAEMONIUM is considerably more than it's external persona. Not just a bit of a dig at a bunch of societal attitudes, Brookmyre digs a hole through to the depths of hell and buries a heap of garbage in it, and he does it delivering something that will make you snort with laughter, hold your breath with anticipation, and finish with great regret.