Review: Lin Anderson – The Special Dead

A post from guest reviewer, Rachel Hall, of The Special Dead by Lin Anderson

imgID34749460.jpg-pwrt3A 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.

 

Review: SJI Holliday – Black Wood

3853Childhood trauma is powerful theme in crime novels. Children are, of course, the victims of violence and the impact of crimes committed against them can last well into adulthood. It’s a theme explored in my own novel In Bitter Chill and I was interested to see how Black Wood by Susi Holliday would approach what looked like a similar premise. However, what writers put down on paper is influenced by their upbringing and own experiences. Holliday has produced a book set in a small Scottish town that is uniquely hers.

Claire and Jo were involved in an act of violence in Black Wood that left Claire paralysed and Jo with a ambivalent attitude towards the world. When a man walks into a bookshop where Jo works she recognises him as one of the people involved in the childhood event. People are reluctant to believe her memories and even Claire urges her to move on. But a balaclava-clad man is attacking women on a nearby railway track which Jo is convinced is connected to the man’s reappearance.

Holliday is excellent at characterisation. Jo’s personality extends beyond the cliché ‘feisty’. She’s obnoxious in parts and hangs on to friendships with a dismaying neediness. But friends are also attracted to her energy and remain loyal to a certain extent. There are multiple points of view but these are well demarked and the narrative easy to follow.

I grew up in a small town and can always identify with the claustrophobia of relationships in a closed circle of friends. Holliday is a very good writer and I particularly enjoyed the long descriptive passages. Not all debut writers have the courage to write these and books can be dialogue heavy. Not so here.

SJI Holliday is a writer to look out for. Black Wood is a standalone so it will be interesting what direction her writing takes her. Thanks to Black and White publishing for my review copy.

Review: Michael J Malone – A Taste for Malice

five_leaves_-_a_taste_for_maliceI enjoyed the first outing of Glasgow detective Ray McBain. Blood Tears combined an emotive issue (abuse inside Catholic children’s homes) with an enjoyable and well-written murder plot. The follow-up has just been published and, in my opinion, is even better than the first. A Taste of Malice has a slightly more subdued feel to it, but again addresses difficult issues involving the abuse of children, this time within the family by someone you trust.

McBain is back at Glasgow CID but has been sidelined and told to keep his nose clean. Desperate for something to do, he hones in on two old cases, where a woman has inveigled her way into a family and found ways to manipulate and torture the children. He goes on a search for the woman, reinterviewing the children involved and following a cold trail. Meanwhile, in Ayrshire, another young family gratefully accepts help from a stranger who enters their lives. However, the mother’s loss of memory is masking deeper problems within the family that are ripe for exploitation.

Michael is an expert storyteller and in A Taste for Malice, we get two distinct plot lines that only merge in the final part of the book. The first, the investigation by McBain, sees him struggling with the trauma from his previous case in the face of Departmental indifference. Only his colleague, Allesandra Rossi, is prepared to assist him as he attempts to dig deeper into the abuse cases. The story of the family struggling to cope with the wife’s memory loss is suitably creepy and it is unclear for a fair amount of the book how the two cases converge. McBain is an attractive character. His childhood scars make him both vulnerable and prickly and his sex life is suitably tempestuous.

The book was an enjoyable and disturbing read. As well as appealing to those who enjoyed Blood Tears, it will also hopefully garner some new readers for this series.

Thanks to the writer for sending me a copy of the book.

Review: Gordon Ferris – Pilgrim Soul

Pilgrim SoulI was in the middle of reading Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris when it was announced that the novel had reached the shortlist of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award for 2013. It’s come as no surprise that such a well written and interesting book should have caught the judges’ eye. I feel I’ve come late to Ferris’s books. Pilgrim Soul is the third in the series featuring journalist Douglas Brodie and I suspect that the author already has a dedicated following. Although I’ve read a lot of books set in the post-war period, and am familiar with the story of ‘ratlines’ that existed to smuggle Nazi criminals out of Germany, this is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject.

Brodie is an ex-policeman turned journalist who is asked by the Jewish community in Glasgow to solve a series of burglaries. His initial investigations become chaotic when the thief, Paddy Craven, is murdered by a householder. Craven was taking gold to a Jewish pawnbroker who is convinced that some of the items came from the bodies of people killed in the extermination camps. Brodie suspects that a ‘ratline’ is going through Glasgow and he is recruited by MI5 back into his former army division and asked to attend Nazi trials taking place in Hamburg. Unhappy at revisiting the horrors he experienced after the liberation of Belsen, he nevertheless attends the interviews with prisoners which confirm the existence of an escape route taking Nazi’s off the continent, via Scotland and on to South America. Back in Glasgow, Brodie is determined to find the local contacts in the escape chain but his efforts are hampered by the Jewish population of the city whowant to mete out their own form of retribution.

Fans of Aly Monroe’s Peter Cotton series will love this book. You get the same sense of post-war austerity with the bitterly cold winter and the shadow of the past looming over ordinary people’s attempts to carry on with their lives. Douglas Brodie is a strong character. There’s a sense of damage, only natural considering what he has experienced, which manifests itself in stressful situations as barely repressed violence. His girlfriend (and landlady), Samantha Campbell, is a fascinating character. A lawyer, she refuses to get married as it will destroy her career, and through working on the Hamburg trials, she is struggling with her own horror at the emerging stories. Particularly shocking in the book is the role of women, both in policing the camps and in the ratlines. It throws up once again the question of why, when women participate in despicable acts, it seems so much worse.

The post-war Jewish community in Glasgow is something I knew little about and it is brought to life here. The book is a very strong read and well deserving of its place on the Historical Dagger short-list. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for it.

Thanks to Atlantic for my copy of the book.