Anna Cameron is a new Sergeant in the Flexi Unit. On her first day in the new job she discovers she'll be working with her ex, Jamie, now married and with a child. In at the deep end emotionally after many years without him, she's also plunged headlong into the underworld of Glasgow's notorious Drag - the haunt of working girls, drug dealers and sad, seedy men. Someone is carving up the faces of local prostitutes, an old man has been brutally killed and racist violence is on the rise; Anna must deal with all this alongside tensions and backstabbing within her own team.
THE TWILIGHT TIME is the debut novel from ex-cop Karen Campbell - featuring Sergeant Anna Cameron as the central character. In 2009 Campbell won Best New Scottish Writer at the Scottish Variety Awards, and there is now a second book out: After the Fire, which switches the viewpoint to two characters from the first book - Jamie and his wife Cath.
But THE TWILIGHT TIME is a book that was recommended to me by somebody whose preferences I follow closely, and coincidentally was nominated as a discussion book on one of my email lists, so it was with some pleasurable anticipation that it was shunted up the To Be Read list.
When Anna Cameron is bought into a local station as part of an active policing unit there's some disquiet around the place - she's mostly been a head office / policy sort of police officer before this and nobody's all that convinced about her ability to take over and run a unit. Fragile emotionally after Jamie dumped her anyway, discovering that she'll be working with him puts her under increased (self-imposed) strain, and when she finds that there is active resentment against her from other members of the squad, she starts to fall apart. Becoming obsessed with the murder of Ezra, a frail, old Polish man doesn't help her cause with anybody - especially as it isn't one of her own cases. When she is injured in the chase for a man who has been carving up the faces of prostitutes, Anna doesn't cope at all well when Jamie's wife Cath (an ex-cop in her own right, with a very bad case of post-natal depression), reaches out to her, having known Ezra as well.
There's a hefty dose of angst, personal instability, depression, obsession, resentment, dislike, mistrust, lack of understanding, and selfishness in just about everybody in THE TWILIGHT TIME. To the point where it can be very off-putting. It's not often that you read a book and come out of it realising that there was a point in the narrative where you'd have cheerfully slapped just about every character. As somebody commented in the discussion we had about the book - there is a fine line between tough and obnoxious and some readers may choose to believe that Anna is tough - and others will be voting obnoxious. Personally I'm not adverse to a flawed central character, and I liked that Anna wasn't perfect and that there were signs of redeeming factors, although I will admit in THE TWILIGHT TIME there were too many flaws in too many of the characters. Having said that, I like characters that aren't too perfect and screw up and have bad days and are a bit grumpy and a bit stupid and occasionally daft as a brush, but stick with things, and care about something - and I really liked the way that Anna and Cath both cared about what happened to a lonely old man.
In terms of plot - there were some good touches, with the mystery of the death of Ezra, and what seems to be, on the face of it a racist plot, quite interesting. It was also touching to be reminded that an old man could die, alone and mostly unforgotten and unremarked on. The other case that is being pursued by Anna's team is the carving up of prostitute's faces. This is resolved reasonably well, although at points it does seem to disappear into all the personal stuff a little, and in both investigations there were a few procedural twists and turns that didn't make a lot of sense. This is a debut book however, and sometimes they can have some flaws. The question really is would reading THE TWILIGHT TIME make me want to pick up the second book and it certainly did that.
LAST RITUALS - Yrsa Sigurdardottir
A young man is found brutally murdered, his eyes gouged out and a strange symbol carved on his body. A student of Icelandic history in Reykjavik, he came from a wealthy German family who do not share the police's belief that his drug dealer murdered him. Thora is hired by his mother to find out the truth, with the help - and hindrance - of boorish ex-policeman Matthew Reich.
Firstly, it has to be said - the book blurb doesn't do Reich any favours and if he was a real person he'd have every right to be slightly miffed about the description of himself as boorish. Sure he's a little stiff and formal in the early part of the book, but that's all it is - he's not boorish at all, and there is a twinkle of a teasing sense of humour that reveals itself as LAST RITUALS proceeds.
That sense of humour is part of what's notable about LAST RITUALS. The subject matter is quite dark, menacing and more than a little bit weird. The body of the young German student has been desecrated after death - the eyes gouged out. But before death, Harald has self-inflicted some odd body art and self-mutilation - all it seems, part of his deep and obsessive interest in witchcraft, magic and the absurd / the violent.
Thora and Matthew are investigating his death as Harald's family don't believe he was killed by his drug dealer - why, well that's probably not the point - and it's not dwelt on in the book. Matthew works for Harald's family and he's sent to Iceland, and because of Thora's background studying in Germany she's pulled into the investigation to assist. Matthew does need some help - he can't speak Icelandic and he struggles to understand the people and their customs plus he doesn't like eating fish that much - in a country where it's a staple food. So he's a bit grumpy and a bit at a loss. Mind you Thora doesn't have to deal with any of that, but she is as lost in the investigation as Matthew. They both agree with Harald's family that it doesn't seem like the drug dealer was involved, and it does look like his friends must have something to do with this - the magic society that they have formed is close and secretive and more than a little weird. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to understand Harald himself, and that's a path that's hard to take.
Sure the subject matter - or method of death for Harald is gruesome, and the magical customs and interests that he had in life are often-times gross and frequently just peculiar, but LAST RITUALS isn't automatically a gruesome and dark book. There is a deftness in the humour used, in the characterisations that lifts the book into something that you really can't help but get involved in. Even Harald, after death, is somebody that seems a bit lost, and there is definitely something odd in his relationship with his own family (and right through the family for that matter).
There's some romance in the relationship between Thora and Matthew that you can really see coming - but it's not overdone or cloying or overly sentimental - it fits right in with the two persona's, and it's tempered by happenings in Thora's own life that just felt so realistic that it worked. There is a heavy concentration on the history of Icelandic and German witchcraft - the magic and the rituals Harald is, after all, studying it as part of his course before he dies. Maybe that will annoy some readers a bit as the concentration is frequently on those components. This reader loved it as it fleshed out the people, fleshed out the world in which they operated and highlighted Harald's fascination and obsession.
DARK FLIGHT - Lin Anderson
A six year old boy has vanished from his own back garden, his mother and grandmother horrifically murdered. At the scene, forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod finds a chilling African talisman made from the bones of a child. Then the mutilated torso of a second child is pulled from the river. Has Stephen been snatched by human traffickers who intend to butcher him in a juju ritual? Can Rhona decipher the talisman's meaning and track Stephen down before he becomes the next link in the killer's chain?
Ever read a book and thought, well I shouldn't really be liking this. Worse than that, have you ever read a book and found yourself ticking the things that the author is doing that annoy you. And yet you find yourself liking the book! DARK FLIGHT did that for me. Well liking is a difficult word to use when the subject matter is as dire as it is in DARK FLIGHT, but that's just one of the things that ticked that list for me.
DARK FLIGHT starts out with the repulsively, shockingly over the top violent death of two women and little boy Stephen is a witness to at least part of the butchering of his mother - then he disappears. Rhona MacLeod finds herself having to work with ex-lover DS Michael McNab in a team that is desperate to find Stephen alive. It seems, from the fetish that was left at the scene, that there is a juju (voodoo) connection to this murder, and Stephen is a mixed-race child, and he and his mother have just returned from Nigeria. A high-profile Nigerian professor from the local university has gone missing, seemingly returned home for sudden family reasons. A member of MacLeod's forensic team is romantically involved with a young medical student who turns out to be a member of a Nigerian Church whose members are the prime suspect group for what seems to have been a ritual killing. So can MacLeod and McNab put aside their own personal problems and find Stephen? Add to that a bit of fem-jep, a hefty dose of relationship anxiety and DARK FLIGHT may or may not sound immediately appealing. But for some reason, probably the skill of the writer, it worked as an engaging book to read.
MacLeod is one of those characters that alternatively annoy you, and interest you. There are aspects of this woman that make you want to track her down and shake some sense into her. She insists upon walking into all sorts of situations that end up with her getting back out again by the skin of her teeth. She constantly dithers around in her personal life. But she also gets really involved in the cases she's called upon to investigate and she's prepared to put a lot of her own baggage aside in the event that an answer can be found.
The other thing that really works in DARK FLIGHT are the supporting cast of characters - MacLeod's closest colleague and friend, Chrissy is definitely the personality in the group - feisty, outspoken, stubborn and loyal to a fault. DI Bill Wilson heads the investigation, deals with his own family problems, and just keeps slogging away, the death of these women, the killing of children is something that affects him greatly.
Despite the presence of Rhona - a forensic scientist - at the centre of this book, this is more of an old fashioned investigative book than a forensic book. Having said that, it's not strictly police procedural either, it's more a sort of a mix of everything.
You can probably imagine the reaction - firstly the blurb "oh no, extreme dislike segueing into romantic tension AGAIN". The front of the book - Stalker. Arsonist. Killer. "deep groaning". The opening lines where a young homeless girl is dying - not caring what happens to her if her much loved German Shepherd dog is dead - and we've got another thing that I struggle with - dog's in jeopardy / animal cruelty. But on the other hand there's an intriguing comment by Stuart MacBride, and the thought that I find it really hard to justify reading all about cruelty to people but struggle when it comes to animals (goodness knows that's a very personal stance, and most definitely not a comment on how other people choose to approach their reading choices!)
But start reading and there's something much more to TORCH. Anderson covers some pretty gruesome subject matter with a deftness of touch and a compassionate viewpoint for all of her characters that is well fleshed out for a book of such a small size (particularly in this day and age where door-stoppers seem to have taken over). TORCH is one of a series of books based around Dr Rhona MacLeod and there's enough smattering of backstory in this first edition to give you some idea of who she is, without necessarily pulling the emphasis away from the investigation - and from the story of Macrae into the bargain. Mind you, I'm not sure I'd be calling him just a hot-tempered misogynist - sure he is partly that - but he's also deeply troubled and damaged in his own right.
The plot behind the death of the young girl is complicated - there are other fires - there is obviously something deeply personal and threatening going on with the investigation, and that's perhaps the only quibble I'd have with TORCH - cruelty to animals where the author uses the events to provide some insight into somebody or something happening is one thing - but using it to prove how bad the already indefensibly bad are, jarred for this reader anyway.
Aside from that, albeit brief disappointment, there's also great kindness and some uplifting characters and events in TORCH and whilst I squirmed a lot throughout the book, it's a series I'll be seeking out.
Blood Red Roses (novella)