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.