A post from guest reviewer, Rachel Hall, of The Special Dead by Lin Anderson
A long overdue introduction to Lin Anderson and her well regarded forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod came in the tenth outing of the series, The Special Dead. It pairs Rhona with newly demoted DS Michael McNab to investigate the ancient practice of Wicca and those that adhere to its teachings. A sensitive subject matter where preconceptions abound and a world which is new to both Rhona and McNab.
When well-heeled Edinburgh banker Mark Howitt travels to Glasgow for a weekend on the town with his friend, Jeff, he seems to have struck lucky when the stunning Leila takes him home and orders him to strip. When he wakes the next morning and finds her gone from the bed he opts for a quick escape. Stumbling into the wrong room he is confronted by a sickening scene; behind rows of plastic dolls swaying as they hang from the ceiling he sees the stripped body of the girl he spent the night with. Lost in a cloud of alcohol and cocaine infused excess, his instincts tell him to run. Could he possibly have had a hand in her death or has he simply been fitted up as the fall guy whose DNA is all over the crime scene?
Rhona immediately suspects ritualistic overtones and involves the scholarly forensic psychologist Professor Magnus Pirie, a man who is the antithesis of McNab and whom the wider team are reluctant to accept. When Magnus identifies the red plaited silk cord which the victim was hung from as a cingulum, a Wiccan artefact used in sex magick, it seems that his knowledge could provide the much needed breakthrough. When further discoveries seem to support that theory the first task for the investigative team is to conquer their own scepticism.
In the eyes of the mass media and a large section of society, Wicca still conjures up images of black magic and devil worship and this includes DS McNab who find himself a little outside of his comfort zone. The author has clearly taken considerable time in researching her subject matter and tackles some of the most misunderstood beliefs and delivers a non-judgemental and unbiased portrayal of just what the practice entails. Whilst I would not normally have considered reading a novel surrounding Wicca, Anderson won me over with just how eloquently she pointed out that every perpetrator has what they regard as a rational reason for their actions and to make headway on any investigation efforts need to be made to try to comprehend a crime no matter how bizarre.
Anderson treats her readers with intelligence and raises some important questions about the future of policing most notably with McNab’s feeling of inadequacy when so much of the investigative process now is dominated by the importance of forensics and technology. He finds himself questioning his input and just what value his “instinct, intuition and years of experience can offer” in the course of a modern-day investigation. The role of forensic psychologists is also put into perspective and Anderson considers how suspicious the rank and file officers can be when a forensic psychologist is introduced, often interpreting it as a sign of lost confidence in their abilities.
Anderson’s forensic insight brings an undoubted gravitas to her writing and she offers readers something different, combining the rigours of forensic knowledge with the characters who drive an investigation forward. The undoubted strength in her work is in making forensics both accessible to her audience and recognising that forensics insights alone only afford a partial glimpse into any story. Admittedly I did feel the ending was a little overplayed and questioned McNab’s close contact with witness Freya, but there was more than enough to draw me back to the work of Lin Anderson. The author does a brilliant job of bringing Glasgow alive, and portrays a city whose inhabitants are proud of their reputation as the second city of Scotland known for its characters and individuality against a view of Edinburgh as perhaps a little more stand-offish and overly gentrified.
Combining the forensic rigour with distinctive regional flavour and a team of realistically flawed characters there is more than enough to guarantee that I will return to Rhona MacLeod.