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.

Review: Catriona McPherson – Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses

It’s good when you read a book without any preconceptions at all. Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses looked like a light-CMcPhearted fun read, based only on the book cover and the accompanying blurb. It turned out to be much more than that, a well written and witty story and it’s great that I’ve found a new series to catch up with.

Dandy Gilver once spent an idyllic summer with the Lipscott family in Pereford. With no men in sight, Mrs Lipscott and her three daughters lived in a comfortable bubble and Dandy forecast a glamorous future for the three girls. But the youngest, Fleur, gave up her charmed life and disappeared to teach English in a remote Scottish girls school. One her sisters calls Dandy and asks her to go to the school and discover what is wrong with Fleur. With her business partner Alec, Dandy travels to St Columba school in Perthshire and discovers an odd timetable, disaffected students and school mistresses with secrets to hide.

Light-hearted crime novels don’t usually do it for me, but this book’s greatest strength is the quality of the writing. You get the witty dialogue and 1930s flavour that readers expect but the writing is intelligent and thought provoking. McPherson provides a wealth of detail that gives the book a period feel but also elevate it above the usual historical mystery. So we get the entertaining pronouncements from the irreverent Dandy Gilver but we also get a subtlety of characterisation. The tension between her feelings for her stick-in-the-mud husband and the charming Alec for example is finely portrayed and adds depth to all the characters.

The book is full of surprises. You are lulled into a ‘cosy’ feel, with the enclosed girls school and eccentric characters, but the motive behind the crimes is quite brutal. There is also an edge to the writing. Dandy’s kind heart is taken advantage of and exposes weaknesses in the people that she trusts.

Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses was a different sort of crime novel to ones I normally read but it’s a lesson in how I need to keep an open mind when trying new fiction. It turned out to be a very enjoyable and relaxing book written for a an intelligent reader. This is always appealing.

Thanks to Hodder for my review copy.

Review: S G MacLean – The Devil’s Recruit

S G MacLeanThe Devil’s Recruit is the fourth book in the series by Shona (now S G) MacLean featuring the disgraced trainee minister Alexander Seaton. The series has been a bit of a mixed bunch. The excellent first novel, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, introduced us to the character of Seaton in his native Banff but a trip to Ulster to help his maternal family in book two was less successful. However, the series seems to be back on form and this latest book a worthy addition to the series.

It is now 1635 and the religious conflict in the Holy Roman Empire between Protestants and Catholics, which became known as the Thirty Years War, is being played out across Europe. Many recruits are coming from the British Isles, taking arms on both sides, but Scotland in particular is providing manpower in support of the Scottish princess, Elizabeth of Bohemia. Outside Aberdeen, a recruiting ship is sitting in the harbour casting a shadow over the town. When the son of a Highland Chief, who was Seaton’s student, disappears, it seems that dark forces are at work and that the religious wars have a resonance the extends to the Scottish city.

I’m always interested in historical crime novels with a religious theme. Scottish religious history isn’t something that I know that much about and I was surprised to read about the strong recusant links that existed at that time. MacLean’s books have previously had a strong Protestant feel and Alexander Seaton’s disgust when he stumbles in on a Catholic Mass conveys itself to the reader. The murder plot is fairly complex. Although the missing student seems to the central mystery, in fact there are a number of malevolent forces operating the city which provides a multi-layered and satisfying read.

Alexander Seaton has always been a complex character. In the second book in the series, A Game of SorrowsSeaton has a brief affair that comes back to haunt him in this book. However, his ongoing obsession with his childhood sweetheart has cataclysmic consequences  and it is clear at the end that the series is going to move in a different direction.

I’m sure that fans of MacLean will enjoy The Devil’s Recruit as will those who like solid historical mysteries. I don’t think any of the series has matched the first book for depth and subtlety but I enjoyed the insight into Scottish Catholic history.

Thanks to Quercus for my review copy.

Review: Christopher Brookmyre – When the Devil Drives

Christopher Brookmyre is a writer that I’ve heard on the radio many times and comes highly recommended but I’d yet to read any of his books. My choice of When the Devil Drives was a result of using for the first time ( I think) Amazon’s rating system to choose a book. I deliberately don’t use ratings on my reviews mainly because, if my Goodreads account is anything to go by, most of my reading would be either 3 or 4 stars. However I scoured the Amazon ratings for Brookmyre’s body of works and chose the one with an aggregate of over 4 stars. As it turned out this was a mixed blessing as a bit of simple further research would have revealed that this was the second book in a series. But nevertheless it was a very enjoyable read although I was kicking myself that I didn’t start with the first book Where the Bodies are Buried.

Private investigator Jasmine Sharpe is hired to find Tessa Garion, an aspiring actress who hasn’t been seen since the early 1980s. Her seriously ill sister wants to trace Tessa and Jasmine soon discovers that the absence of tax records since her disappearance means that Tessa is either ‘very rich or very dead’, and suspects the latter. Tessa’s last tax return is related to a brief stint with the Glass Shoe Company, a theatre group where many of the participants have subsequently become famous figures in the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Catherine MacLeod is called to a shooting in a remote Scottish castle. A theatre performance for corporate clients has ended in the shooting of one the principal guests.

It’s been a while since I read a book set in the UK with a private investigator as its main character and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed PI mysteries. Jasmine Sharpe reminded me a little of PD James’s Cordelia Gray but this could well have been because I entered the story in book two where she is taking over the business from her dead employer, her Uncle Jim. The opening chapters gave a new reader like me plenty of background information about how she had arrived at ownership of the business and her work seemed a realistic mix of the mundane set amongst the more glamorous hunt for Tessa Garrion. When Jasmine herself comes under threat she calls up her protector Fallon who still refuses to reveal his precise relationship to Jasmine’s dead mother. Fallon as a character was a satisfying mix of deadly intent and loyalty to Jasmine.

The police investigation of Catherine Macleod was slightly less interesting, mainly I think as the relevance to Jasmine’s investigation wasn’t revealed until late in the book. However the sections involving Catherine did have interesting exchanges with her more relaxed husband on the relationship between explicit video games and violence in the wider society, passages that worked well in contrast to the deaths in the narrative.

There were plenty of twists and turns in the plot to make the resolution of the mystery of Tessa’s disappearance different from other missing persons investigations. If the quality of this book is anything to go by I’m certainly going to read more of Brookmyre’s novels.

I bought my copy of this book.

Review: Michael J Malone – Blood Tears

I first read this book in manuscript two years ago when Michael was looking for a publisher. I thought the story was both riveting and tragic, portraying the reverberations years later of child abuse in a Scottish children’s home during the 1970s. The book was published by Five Leaves Publications earlier this year, which gave me a chance to revisit the characters in Blood Tears.

Detective Inspector Ray McBain is a Glasgow detective investigating the death of a murdered man who has wounds identical to stigmata. The victim is quickly identified as a paedophile who once worked in a Catholic children’s home, Bethlehem House. McBain travels to the orphanage to retrieve a list of children who came into contact with the murdered man and removes his own name from this list in front of his new DC Allesandra Rossi. This omission has serious reverberations for McBain as the killings continue and he becomes the main suspect. He is now forced to try to prove his innocence while simultaneously investigating the case from afar.

Blood Tears has been marketed as ‘Scottish Catholic noir’ and in fact this is a very good description of the book. The novel follows the tradition of many other excellent Scottish police procedurals and McBain in particular has a lovely stock of Scottish phrases which made this English reader smile. There is also a strong Catholic theme to the book. The children’s home was run by a religious order of nuns and the current mother superior was a particularly vicious member of the community who remembers Ray as a child. The book is very good at depicting how the terrors of childhood can make a grown man fear for his own sanity. There is also a sense of unfinished business in relation to the Church although Ray’s one attempt to attend a religious service ends disastrously. The darkness that runs through the book provides the ‘noirish’ feel and the interspersed passages from the killer’s point of view show how disturbed the individual is by past events.

The book isn’t all darkness though. There is a grim humour throughout, particularly the passages involving Ray McBain. He is clearly his own worst enemy and yet as the book shows he was abandoned first by his (living) parents and then by the institution that was supposed to look after him. The irony that he then chose to go to a seminary after leaving the children’s home and then ended up in another institution – the police – isn’t lost on the reader.

The book is an excellent début and I would certainly read more the series. I doubt I’ll be lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the manuscript next time…

I bought my copy of this book. Other reviews can be found at The View from the Blue House and Crimesquad.

The author’s website is here.

Review: Peter May – The Black House

Every now and then you pick up a book that is impossible to put down. You start reading it and then everything else falls by the wayside until the story is finished. Sometimes, however, the quality of writing isn’t up to the pace of the narrative and you feel guilty for a wasted day. This wasn’t the case with Peter May’s The Black House which combined excellent plotting with some beautiful descriptions of the Isle of Lewis . It was a book I read purely because of an excellent blogger review from Maxine at Petrona and I’m kicking myself that I nearly missed it.

DS Fin Macleod of the Edinburgh police is mourning the death of his young son and the breakdown of his marriage. He is sent to the Isle of Lewis, the place where he was born and raised to see if a recent murder in Stornoway is connected to a similar killing in Edinburgh. Fin hasn’t set foot on the Isle since his aunt’s funeral years earlier and the trip is infused with memories from the past and an event that caused a savage break with the island.

There is so much going on in this book that it’s hard to know when to stop with the precis of the plot. It is rooted firmly in the crime fiction tradition. There is a murder, with a possible link to another event and an investigation that takes many twists and turns. The detective has many of the characteristics that we would expect from a lead character, although interestingly no side-kick. His associate in the murder investigation is his memory which propels him into the past. I was very impressed by how the passages in the past were presented. The narrative changes from the third person to the first person and back again, marking the shift in time. This is another book written for the intelligent reader.

The story is wonderful. It describes an upbringing in a time that is almost lost. It wasn’t idyllic given the tragedies in the young boy’s life but the narrative effectively conveys the friendships and feuds that make up a childhood in a small rural community. The description of the hunting of the gugas (the annual gannet hunt on the island of Sula Sgeir) provided an interesting metaphor for the clashing of traditional ritual and modern progress and was also an atmospheric backdrop to the tensions in the plot.

It’s hard to find any criticisms of this book. I suppose the sheer amount of events that happened in the life of Fin almost but not completely stretched the imagination. I wasn’t completely convinced over by the repressed teenage memories that weren’t revealed until the book’s conclusion but again this didn’t detract from the plot. It was a great find and thanks to Maxine at Petrona I now have the second book in the series, The Lewis Man ,to get my teeth into. I just need to clear a day to read it.

Other (universally glowing) reviews are at Eurocrime, Bookgeeks and The Lit Witch.

Shona MacLean – Crucible of Secrets

I’ve just finished reading the latest book by Shona MacLean and I am glad to see that she’s back on form. MacLean’s first book The Redemption of Alexander Seaton was in my opinion the best historical thriller of 2009. Set in seventeenth century Scotland, the plot centred on the character of Alexander Seaton, a disgraced minister, embarking on a journey around the country to avenge his friend’s murder. The author’s follow-up book moved the action to northern Ireland and she seemed less sure of her setting. In the Crucible of Secrets the action moves back to Scotland, to the university town of Aberdeen, and the historical landscape once more comes alive.

The book has everything I would expect from a MacLean novel – good historical detail, clear prose and a complex plot.  MacLean has a PhD in Scottish history and her knowledge of the period is clearly excellent. I raced to the finish, always a good sign in a crime novel. I remember the author telling Harrogate Crime Festival that she had numerous rejections for her first book before she eventually found a publisher. She is an example to all aspiring authors of how important it is to keep going – she was eventually taken up by the excellent Quercus.