Eric Chalmers is one of the most popular teachers at Muirpark Secondary School in Glasgow. So when precocious teenager Julie Donaldson accuses Chalmers of rape, the school goes into shock. How could a deeply religious family man like Chalmers do anything like that?
Sometimes you have to wonder if the blurbs publishers put on the front of the book are more of a hindrance than a help. In the case of Alex Gray's 6th book - they've set an unbelievably high expectation with 'Brings Glasgow to life in the same way Ian Rankin evokes Edinburgh'. Quite a high mark to set, and one I have to say I didn't think was reached with this particular book.
DCI William Lorimer has been called in to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. Snatched by a woman in a car from just outside her home, everyone fears the worst as the days drag on with little or no clues. Meanwhile, at the school where Lorimer's wife Maggie teaches, Julie Donaldson - a teenage student at the school - has accused a popular Religious Education teacher of rape, and young Kyle Kerrigan, coincidentally he is very close to Julie, is dealing with the release from jail of his violent and abusive father.
When Julie disappears an official investigation stretches Lorimer's team further as they are still hunting for the missing toddler. Meanwhile Maggie is conducting her own unofficial investigations as she and her colleagues struggle to believe that a popular teacher like Eric Chalmers would have ever been involved with a young student.
Despite the sense of urgency that you think would be inherent in these sorts of multiple threads, the book really seemed to lack focus and pace. The concentration of the story around the school - and hence Maggie - also meant that Lorimer, as the investigating policemen, was at best a bit part, a sort of a grey lurking figure in the background somewhere. The main thread in the book does appear to have been the accusation of sexual assault, and because this occurs within the context of the school community, Maggie does have a much higher "investigator" profile. As startling as this seems, the sexual assault case became all a bit boring. Perhaps this was partly because Maggie's was a very difficult character to have much interest in or sympathy with. She and her colleagues seem to operate in a starkly black and white world - where people are either "good" or "bad" and that distinction had an overtly moralistic tone to it. Along with that - the constant claims of disbelief at Eric's position (the "good" people); the colleagues with differing opinions (the "bad" people); the constant assertions that Eric is "not that sort of person"; the wanderings around in his personal life that didn't contribute much to anything in the book; and it all got very repetitious and extremely tedious. Combine that with some aspects of the abuse of Kyle Kerrigan that were - even for a reader well versed in the art of willing suspension of disbelief - unbelievable, and it was a strangely flat sort of a book. This definitely wasn't helped much by a series of nice, tied up in ribbon resolutions that were piled on at the end, leaving the whole thing with a bit of a "here's one that we prepared earlier" feeling.
Having never read any of the other books in the series, it's not possible to say whether this particular book suffers from the concentration of Maggie and the lack of a substantive part being played by William or not. Having said all of that, I should try another book in the series and see if this one just didn't quite hit the spot for this reader. The blurb has to be hinting at something after all.
Also by Alex Gray: Never Somewhere Else, A Small Weeping, Shadows of Sounds,The Riverman and Pitch Black