This doesn’t often happen to me, but over the past 10 days I’ve read three British authors in a row (albeit with English, Welsh and Scottish roots, so a good attempt at some diversity). This is what comes of letting my children choose the next book for me to read on the tablet! They go by titles alone and, being at that zombie-loving age, of course they wanted something hinting at death or goriness. So I’ve read: Where the Dead Men Go, Someone Else’s Skin and Talking to the Dead.
Each excellent in its own way (never let it be said my boys don’t have good taste!)
It struck me that the first is very macho and masculine (gangland Glasgow, after all), the second is feminine (whatever that means; in this case it addresses issues such as domestic abuse and features a female lead detective), while the third is ambidextrous (written by a man, featuring a female detective… but one who displays very few traits which we might have been conditioned to label feminine).
It’s hard to make your mark in the Scottish crime writing landscape, crowded as it is with giants such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and William McIlvanney. The last of these is the father of Liam, so it is hard not to compare the two, especially since they both deal with gangs, tough guys and drugs in Glasgow. Yet the younger McIlvanney makes his own mark with this very topical, thrilling view of a Scotland on the brink of independence, getting ready to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and a newspaper industry on its last dying gasp. Reporter Gerry Conway is a lovely creation: morbidly curious, dogged in the pursuit of truth, yet also a loving and very involved father. When Gerry’s younger colleague goes missing and is later found dead, he’s left wondering just how shallow Glasgow’s veneer of modern respectability is. This is taut, muscular writing – not as philosophical or lyrical as McIlvanney Père, perhaps, but as dark and addictive as very strong coffee.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read Sarah Hilary’s shorter fiction: she really can write, but this accomplished debut novel proves that she is a long-distance runner as well as a sprinter. This novel skillfully handles a disturbing topic (domestic violence), and introduces a resourceful if rather troubled lead investigator, Marnie Rome. Her own parents were stabbed to death by their foster son five years earlier, so she has traumatic flashbacks when she witnesses a knife-attack at a women’s shelter. However, she is a successful, no-nonsense DI and swiftly gets down to business to get a reliable account of what happened from the other women at the shelter. Meanwhile, she is also trying to convince a young Asian girl to give evidence against her brothers, who nearly succeeded in blinding her with bleach.
It’s a fast-moving plot, with plenty of unexpected twists to keep you on your toes, but where the story really comes alive for me is in its depiction of hidden suffering. How we can never really know what lies beneath the apparently calm surface of a house, a marriage, a family. How we can never really put ourselves into someone else’s skin. And how most of the women at the shelter where Marnie and her team conduct their investigation would ideally like to be somebody else, start a new life, but are not sure how.
The first in the Fiona Griffiths series, introducing a very unusual, highly intelligent but socially not at all well-functioning heroine. (We later find out she suffers from an unusual form of post-traumatic stress disorder called Cotard’s Syndrome, but this is only hinted at in this book.) The crime itself and the investigation that follows are solid enough (and the child victim whose head is crushed by a Belfast sink is very affecting), but there is a feeling of déjà vu about the plot. The final revelations about Fiona’s past did not catch me entirely by surprise, either, but the big plus of this book is the heroine herself. The author is onto a winner with her: she reminds me in so many ways of Saga Norén, the ever so possibly autistic Swedish investigator in the recent series ‘The Bridge’. Despite her yearning to belong to ‘Planet Normal’, Fi is eccentric, rebellious, has a problem following orders and cannot really understand other people’s feelings (or her own). She does get herself into some very dangerous situations, almost implausibly so, but it all makes sense to her at the time. I am stunned at how well a sane male forty-something author can enter the mind of a young disturbed woman.
I also liked the secondary characters: Fi’s parents, her colleagues, her potential love interest, and the indomitable Lev (surely Ukrainian?). I will certainly be reading more in this series simply to see what Fi does next.