A body is recovered from a peat bog on the Isle of Lewis. The male Caucasian corpse is initially believed by its finders to be over 2000 years old, until they spot the Elvis tattoo on his right arm. The body, it transpires, is not evidence of an ancient ritual killing, but of a murder committed during the latter half of the 20th century.
After listening to the first two books in the Lewis Trilogy pretty much one after the other, I've done it at all the wrong time of the year. I'm a bit partial to listening to, or reading, books from cold, wet climes in the heights of our summer, and all predictions are indicating we're in for a stinking summer. Hot, dry as a chip and dangerous. So I'll be looking for some seriously cold, wet reading material - including the third book in the trilogy to come.
Aside from the climactic conditions, this is a wonderfully atmospheric series, with some seriously beautifully descriptive writing that works perfectly as an audio book. It's immersive listening, with the narrator able to enhance the atmospherics with perfect pronunciation and accent. The stories themselves are interesting - very much in the closed room vein in many ways - not surprising given the island setting, but with enough local touches to create something particularly interesting. The idea here that a body discovered in the peat could be ancient, but turns out to be more recent, is at the core of this plot. With the local customs of peat cutting and storing, the way that island life revolves around the need to survive the long-harsh winters, and the idea that even in a small community, people can drop through the cracks particularly intriguing and engaging.
The novels have had a tendency to be finished off in a bit of a flourish but that's very forgiveable when everything else about this series has been absolutely perfect. They would be good as reading material, but this is a series I'm particularly pleased to have opted for audio on. It's been a listening pleasure.
In a House of Lies, Ian Rankin
In these dark woods, many schlocky movies were once made. It was universally agreed that they were mostly rubbish, but they did sell well enough to a certain market and many wild drug fuelled parties were enjoyed in the making of the low budget horror flicks.
So we are rolling along with all the old gang (though the lovely wee dog is relatively new); Rebus, heir apparent Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox, Big “Ger” Cafferty etc. There’s a huge comfort in the familiarity of seeing the same people in each outing, though you do wonder how much longer Rebus’s involvement in current police investigations can be justified or explained away. Cafferty, who seemed to be beginning to slide into the background in series priors, appears to have found his mojo again IN THIS HOUSE OF LIES. Very curious to see what will happen with Cafferty’s empire, and as to what tolerance level the ‘newer guard’ will have with Cafferty’s possible criminal resurgence.
All Rebus’s street contacts are still there, as is the snappy dialogue, the pithy observations and the uncanny ability of Rebus to insert himself into police investigations that interest him in retirement. It is a credit to Rankin that he manages to pepper his series with both old characters and new and its not a hard task for the average reader to keep all of them straight, even with the characteristically complex plotting that Rankin is a master of.
IN THIS HOUSE OF LIES features all the trickery we expect from an Ian Rankin crime novel and is quite likely the best possible way a crime fiction reader can choose to while away a few hours. Each encounter with John Rebus continues to be a rewarding one and the novels have evolved with the times. Police procedurals seem to have slipped a little as market dominators and they need to navigate constant social and cultural changes, many of which may challenge the traditional constructs of works of this type. That graduation has been a skilful and subtle process in the hands of Ian Rankin. Fans will already have snapped this up and if there is anyone out there new to the Rebus series, it won’t be a problem to dive right in with this twenty second novel featuring Scotland’s finest.
Long may Rebus reign.
Fault Lines, Doug Johnstone
A little lie … a seismic secret … and the cracks are beginning to show…
Imagine a very different Edinburgh, one where constant earthquakes, tremors and aftershocks are a regular part of life. This is the setting for Fault Lines which opens with Surtsey setting foot on Inch, a small island in the Firth of Forth which was formed after a volcanic eruption 25 years earlier. Although Surtsey has always felt an affinity with Inch, having been born on the day it was formed, she is not there to go sightseeing, Surtsey is there to meet her boss, PhD supervisor and lover Tom. When Tom is found dead on the shoreline Surtsey panics, quickly grabs Tom’s phone and flees Inch, leaving him to a grisly fate. With every decision there is always a consequence and Surtsey soon finds that she’s not very good at making the right decisions.
After reading Jack’s Return Home Fault Lines was not only a welcome relief, it was also a very enjoyable read and one which made me wish I’d discovered Doug Johnstone many years previously. Surtsey is an excellent lead character and one which, as she often makes angry and rash decisions, you struggle to maintain sympathy with. Some of the other characters, notably friend and fellow student Halima, Surtsey’s sister Iona who she has a fiery relationship with, their terminally ill mother Louise and Donna, who’s a nurse at the hospice where Louise resides, are equally good. For me as a reader it was a joy to read a novel where almost all of the main characters were female and although each of them had their own faults, some of them deeply flawed, they were never caricatured.
Summer is well on the way and with many of the current crop of Australian novels being set in our drought ridden country towns the setting of Fault Lines in the cool waters of the Firth of Forth is not only a pleasant cool change, it’s also a darn good read. Highly recommended.
Whiskey From Small Glasses, Denzil Meyrick
DI Jim Daley is sent from the city to investigate a murder after the body of a woman is washed up on an idyllic beach on the West Coast of Scotland.
Far away from urban resources, he finds himself a stranger in a close knit community.
The investigation becomes more deadly as two more bodies are found.
Love, betrayal, fear and death stalk the small community, as Daley investigates a case that becomes more deadly than he could possibly imagine; in this compelling, beautifully written novel - infused with intrigue and dark humour.
WHISKEY FROM SMALL GLASSES is the first in the DI Jim Daley (yes he does go to the gym daily) and DS Brian Scott series, which I've started listening to, as opposed to reading, and very fine listening it is. Narrated by David Monteath, the series is now up to book 6.
Starting out with a good balance between introduction and set up of new characters, and an interesting investigation to be getting on with, WHISKEY FROM SMALL GLASSES comes with a unique setting and some dark humour into the bargain. There's also more than enough intrigue, marital issues, and police politics to keep a reader amused.
Set in a seemingly fictional version of Kinloch, one hundred and fifty "long way round" miles from Glasgow, the area has recently come under the overall control of the Strathclyde Police. Superintendent John Donald, once footsore copper and compatriot of Daley's, now his boss, is determined to get these remote outposts to step into line, so a murder case seems like the perfect opportunity to send Daley and Scott off to the countryside, get a quick turnaround on the case, and show these yokels a thing or two about effective policing. Not exactly the best timing for Daley's personal life as his marriage to the serially unfaithful Liz is tanking rapidly, his waistline is expanding and his reserves of patience sorely tried. When Liz lobs into Kinloch with her suspect brother-in-law in tow, it's the last thing Daley wants or needs, although the arrival of his investigating buddy, friend and sounding board Brian Scott, him of the highly colourful turn of phrase, and pointed turn of snark, has given Daley the friend and support he needs.
Listening to this novel washing past was a very enjoyable experience. There is a hefty concentration on Daley's problems with his marriage, enough that I'd have normally expected to be rapidly over it, but it does kind of work here. The concentration on the case, the friendship between Daley and Scott, the idiotic behaviour of the local police chief, all sort of slot together, making everyone feel real, and conflicted, and trying hard. With the Daley's being away from home, in a place where they are unknown there is always the hope that they might eventually decide whether it's a yes or no on the marriage. With Daley and Scott being in town, even though the body count does grow, there's always a feeling that there might not be Donald's longed for quick turnaround, but a resolution to the murders will be found. All the while there is the real feeling that Kinloch and it's people are working their way into Daley's admiration and life.
There is much more to these murders than originally thought, and things quickly go from a murder investigation to sorting out an international drug-trafficking ring, and at that point the investigative side of the novel does get a bit ropey, although where it's heading becomes obvious at the end. Write this one off to a major amount of set up for the rest of the series and you should be able to forgive things getting a bit messy, to say nothing of some very heavy darning to pull some threads into place.
Having now listened to the first couple of books in the series, I think I'll stick with them in audio format as the dialogue, the place names, even the thought patterns of the characters are quintessentially Scottish and part of the enjoyment was hearing it in just the right accent.
Now We Are Dead, Logan McRae #10.5
From the No. 1 bestselling author of the Logan McRae series, comes a standalone spinoff featuring DS Roberta Steel
Sergeant Roberta Steel has recently been demoted after being caught fitting up a suspect. The trouble is, the man she got sent down has had his sentence quashed now he’s back on the streets. And women are being attacked again. But if DS Steel goes anywhere near him his lawyers will get her thrown off the force for good.
When I read this back in January I posted a review. Or at least I thought I did. Imagine my surprise when I found it here in the draft queue. Whoops.
NOW WE ARE DEAD is a spinoff from the Logan McRae series featuring the glorious DS Roberta Steel. I say glorious in a "slightly ironic / well of course she's a bit gross but she's unapologetically over the top about everything / has a heart of gold / seriously / if you can't handle your women strong, forceful, and a bit sweary what are you doing reading Stuart MacBride books - especially one about Roberta Steel" way.
I love Roberta Steel. I love everything about the woman from her constant mining in her not insubstantial bosom, to her terrorising of the "deserves to be put upon half the time" Logan McRae, right down to her determination that no scroat will go unpunished on her watch.
Honestly, if you've not read any of Stuart MacBride's books then you really do need to be getting on with them. This is a series that's unashamedly right versus wrong, with a twist. They are police procedurals with the procedures manual propping open the door, and a hefty dose of dry, dark, slightly grotty humour. DS (yep she's been demoted from DI) Roberta Steel deserved her own book yonks ago and I, for one am extremely pleased she's got it.
I'm particularly pleased that NOW WE ARE DEAD is it as well. Of course Steel's not going to be happy when somebody she firmly believed did something, gets his sentence quashed. She's obviously going to take demotion personally as well, and there are times when everybody could be forgiven for thinking she's more than a bit obsessed about all of this for the wrong reasons. But Steel is, aside from everything else, a copper and she's got a copper's nose for a villain, and quite possibly, a big appetite for sacrifice in the line of duty.
If you're a fan of any of Stuart MacBride's books - the Logan McRae series, the Ash Henderson series, his Christmas series (I kid you not), or his standalones then you will have hot footed it to the bookshop for this one already. If for some reason you missed it, then off you go.
The Blackhouse, Peter May
The Isle of Lewis is the most desolate and harshly beautiful place in Scotland. When a bloody murder on the island bears the hallmarks of a similar slaying in Edinburgh, police detective Fin Macleod is dispatched north to investigate. Since Fin himself was raised on the island, the investigation represents not only a journey home but a voyage into his past. Each year twelve island men sail out to a remote and treacherous rock called An Sgeir on a perilous quest to slaughter nesting seabirds. No longer necessary for survival, this rite of passage is still fiercely defended.
Peter May's Lewis Trilogy isn't a new undertaking, originally published in 2009, but it's one of those series I've had flagged in my audio book queue for a long time, and recently I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of available listening time and a desire for something that was dark, atmospheric and delivered in my favourite of all accents.
The trilogy is based around policeman and child of Lewis Island, Fin MacLeod. Born and raised on Lewis, he was the boy who left for a university education in Edinburgh. Raised in part by an aunt, his parents having died in a car accident when he was young, there's something more buried in Fin's attitude to the place of his birth. When he's sent back home after a murder on the island that bears a resemblance to one he investigated in Edinburgh, he is instantly drawn back into the small, deeply inter-connected and multi-generational complications that are small community interactions and history.
The island setting feels like the archetypal closed community. Insular, inter-related, and externally private, the closed room type setting is further enhanced by the shared history of the investigator, the victim and the investigated, especially as reminiscences start to fill in their shared past. Alternating chapters of past and present help in following the audio version of this book in particular, and the narrator does an excellent job in varying tone, pace and voice all the way through meaning that you don't lose the thread of who is talking, thinking or reminiscing. And it doesn't hurt at all that the Gaelic contributions are lyrical and absolutely beautiful to listen to.
There's a hefty dose of romantic entanglement in this book as well with just about everybody carrying a sad burden and a hefty dose of love lost, loved ones dead, regret and much longing. After now listening to the first couple of books in the trilogy this is a theme that continues forward and may be a little heavy-handed for some readers (listeners) as you really do find yourself being dragged back down into the personal on a lot of occasions. Given the eventual solution, and motivation for the crime(s) that have occurred in the two books so far, it kind of makes sense that the personal is a strong component, and an incredibly messy one to boot.
Ultimately though, THE BLACKHOUSE was an atmospheric, dark, brooding, overwhelmingly sad story, which worked really well as an audio book. Especially if it's tweaking the same sorts of cultural memory (longing) that it did for this reader.
Book Review - Rather be the Devil, Ian Rankin
The death of Maria Turquand had all the ingredients that would have appealed to the salacious public forty years ago; a beautiful woman, gangsters, drugs and rock stars. Not everyone from those glory days has moved on from Edinburgh and it pleases retired detective John Rebus that this is a cold case with connections to the present. Old crimes can still wound. Secrets from the past can forever alter those that are forever tasked with keeping them hidden.
It's quite possible that there will be a few moments during the reading of this novel where you will want to punch the air in pride. Our man Rebus still has the sharpest wit around and eases his way around tricky situations with the practiced air of one who expects little of others but demands much of himself. The acceptance of DI Siobhan Clarke and DI Malcolm Fox that Rebus will always a part of their investigative lives is well and truly established in RATHER BE THE DEVIL; it is both sweet and savvy of them both. The Rebus novels remain fiendishly clever and there's that continuing comfort also in knowing that John Rebus will not twilight out fighting the good fight alone. Having the serving Scotland police force continue to accept the input of an ex detective like Rebus, who always unashamedly operated within his own unique moral code, is supremely satisfying to his long time fans.
RATHER BE THE DEVIL is not quite new light through old windows but by novel's end you are quite refreshed and confident that this series will continue to go from strength to strength, even with the changing of the guard. The world of Rebus is now very insular – need a cop, use Malcolm and Siobhan, need a criminal lord, there’s always big Ger Cafferty etc – but the novels continue to be loaded to the hilt with vicious crimes and complicated agendas. RATHER BE THE DEVIL is a tighter work than a few of its series predecessors in that the series strengths are being employed all at once to produce an absorbing crime novel that would hold its own to a new reader, plus reaffirm the devotion of an existing fan of author Ian Rankin.
Review - In the Cold Dark Ground,Stuart MacBride
Sergeant Logan McRae is in trouble…
His missing-persons investigation has just turned up a body in the woods – naked, hands tied behind its back, and a bin bag duct-taped over its head. The Major Investigation Team charges up from Aberdeen, under the beady eye of Logan’s ex-boss Detective Chief Inspector Steel. And, as usual, she wants him to do her job for her.
Writing a long term series has to create some issues for authors that probably some of we fans rarely consider. All we want is the next book. IN THE COLD DARK GROUND is the 10th in the Logan McRae series from Stuart MacBride, and I'm really sorry about this but I want the 11th pretty well now. As in straight away.
It goes without saying that I've always been a huge fan of this series, and aside from the wonderful, strong, often slightly eccentric characters, the reason for that is the constant changes in circumstance that McRae, DCI Steel and those around them find themselves dealing with. Lives change in these books, not always in a good way, and IN THE COLD DARK GROUND everyone seems to end up dealing with some really hefty crap.
Whilst you'd think that the personal would be more than enough for McRae to be going on with, along comes the pain-in-the-neck upper echelon type in the form of a new Superintendent of the Serious Organised Crime Task Force who muscles her way into his investigation of a missing person who turned up dead in very odd circumstances. Mind you, that's nothing compared to how close Professional Standards are getting to DCI Steel - close enough to find McRae doing a turn as a tightrope walker between a couple of particularly tricky snakepits. Mind you, nothing from the professional side of life compares to the bucket loads of grief that come to McRae when Wee Hamish Mowat dies leaving rival gangs eyeing his territory, and McRae in charge of his estate.
Needless to say, IN THE COLD DARK GROUND is exactly the sort of slightly manic action, pressure, personal complications, don't blink or you'll miss something roller-coaster that is a Logan McRae novel. There's always just enough to tweak the heart strings, more than enough to make a reader laugh, and the slightest feeling that everybody's gone a bit mad. As you'd probably do when the weather's always wet, cold and dank, the police house remains a dump, your colleagues are still a bunch of numpty's and what was already a really sucky personal life has just got a whole lot bloody worse.
As much as I'd love to say that if you're a new reader to this series than just get on with it, it's one that you really have to read in order. The personal / professional crossover is pretty complicated and there's so much history to McRae, Steel and the rest of the mad bunch that you're really going to have to know who is what, and how they all ended up in the middle of nowhere dodging Professional Standards, staring at some very odd home movies.
REVIEW - WHO'S AFRAID by Maria Lewis
After her mother's death, it seems to Tommi that all the answers to her questions lie in land of the long white cloud. After a bit of investigative legwork, Tommi flies from her home in urban Scotland all the way down to New Zealand to meet with her blood family. They are not at all what she had expected. And neither is what happens to her own self after being in contact with others like her. Other werewolves, that is.
Heroine Tommi is going through a period of earth shattering change, all the while trying to keep it from affecting her work and relationships. So, of course, it is near impossible. Tommi's lead in all this is her Guardian, Lorcan (gorgeous, just like Tommi herself, of course) who has himself a big fat secret that he doesn't want to reveal too soon to his new, and first, student. Teaching Tommi to kick supernatural butt is easier than he thought it would be, and before you know it, the power and skills of the pupil begin to eclipse that of the teacher. Tommi needs to call upon all her new skills sooner than she would have hoped, with deadly results.
The appeal of this novel does not lie in the werewolf aspect (werewolves have been the focus of a blistering amount of novels in the last decade) but rather with its Gen Z heroine and secondary characters . This is novel populated by Scottish Gen Z urbanites who are all just trying to keep it together day to day and find their own levels of happy. Some of their lines are quite snappy, and the messy lives of the under 25's flat sharing years are identifiable to anyone past that shimmering age. Tommi is smart and funny; too smart to be meandering along in life as she seems to be at the start of his novel but then there wouldn't be much scope for change or growth. All that is thrust upon her.
WHO'S AFRAID is the first novel in a new urban fantasy series by Australian author Maria Lewis. The story here does not hang itself up on all the traditional woo-woo rules and regulations so not much time is wasted in getting the new werewolf from mourning to fighting. Tommi keeps it all together as her world dramatically changes and the reader is right there with her as she soon begins to accept if not embrace her new life.
A solid entry point to a new world, WHO'S AFRAID won't having you checking the shadows as you read - this book is not that graphic or terrifying - but it will have you cheering for Tommi as she stoically decides that her life is to be only onwards and upwards from here.
REVIEW - COFFIN ROAD by Peter May
A man is washed up on a deserted beach on the Hebridean Isle of Harris, barely alive and borderline hypothermic. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. The only clue to his identity is a map tracing a track called the Coffin Road. He does not know where it will lead him, but filled with dread, fear and uncertainty he knows he must follow it.
A mystery set within a bubble very much heightens the senses when reading COFFIN ROAD. The action is placed within an isolated small seaside town and there are very few characters for the reader to learn about and glean clues from. The lead, who has lost his memory, retraces his steps in an effort to find out who he is, what kind of man he is, and what it is that he has done that has left him with such a leaden feeling of dread.
May reaches deep into the psyche of his lead character and we are immersed very quickly in his nightmare. Having washed up on a beach with injuries, Neal Maclean seems to have no family, no close friends, and lives in a cottage bereft of meaning personal effects with only his dog for company. He is compelled however to traverse what is locally known as Coffin Road, a walkers trail along the coastline. As fleeting memories return to Neal, it becomes even more puzzling to him as to why he has chosen to remove himself from all he has known to live in this beautiful but remote part of Scotland. When he discovers a man’s body on a nearby island, Neal becomes more convinced that the reason why he came to be alone in this remote part of the world was because he had felt a need to hide.
Peter May never loses his way in COFFIN ROAD, coaxing his reader forward as Neal Maclean becomes more desperate to solve the mystery that his own life. COFFIN ROAD is a beautifully descriptive novel as well as being a very personal one; the roar of the wind and the crashing of the ocean are ever present as the melancholic backdrop to one mans’ desperation. The amnesia is thankfully only a minor plot device (that old chestnut) and it is not a novel about one man rediscovering himself – there are other forces at play that are very left field to the moody first half of this book.
Fans of Peter May will gleefully add COFFIN ROAD to their collection and new readers would be pleased with this almost closed room mystery that needs very few literary props to satisfy.