Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
There is, it would seem, an unwritten rule for writers of cop-centric series that states that at some point the cop must become involved in an off-the-books investigation. Craig Robertson’s third novel, Cold Grave, sees the return of series characters Rachel Narey and Tony Winter, and drops them into the middle of a cold case that they have no business investigating.
1993 – Detective Inspector Alan Narey’s last case involves the brutal murder of a young woman on a small island in the middle of Scotland’s only lake. Not only is Narey unable to find the murderer, but he retires never even having discovered the identity of the murdered girl. Nineteen years later, Alan Narey is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. His daughter, Detective Sergeant Rachel Narey, hoping to relieve his burden before it is too late, decides to reopen the case. When her father’s only suspect dies shortly afterwards in suspicious circumstances, and the body count starts to rise, Narey and police photographer Tony Winter discover themselves working to a much more imminent deadline than the one imposed by Alan Narey’s failing mental faculties.
Craig Robertson’s third novel marks a welcome return for Narey and Winter. This time around, the narrative is more evenly split between the two central characters, and we start to see a much more likeable side to Winter – he gets less time to air his grievances this time around (though he does still manage a fair amount of whinging), and we are allowed deeper insight into his odd fixation with photographing the dead. Narey, we find, is a much more vulnerable character, and her increasingly difficult relationship with her father – a man who may or may not remember who she is at any given point in time – forms the core of her sections of the novel. Alan Narey’s rapid decline is heart-breaking to watch, and Robertson does an excellent job tugging at the reader’s heartstrings; it’s unexpected beauty in the midst of this dark and gritty thriller.
Once again, Robertson manages to nail Glasgow and its people to the page. We’re introduced to the seedier side of the city – a side that the tourist board will most likely not thank Robertson for highlighting – through a series of dark and dingy pubs and restaurants and a cast of hard men and assorted reprobates. Dialogue is written in a way that makes it easy for the reader to hear the thick accent in which the words are spoken, and once again littered with local words and phrases (don’t worry: more often than not make perfect sense in the context in which they are uttered). Football shines through as an important element of these peoples’ lives – the bars are often Celtic bars or Rangers bars, and the people themselves often divide along the same lines. It’s obvious, though, that the game and the teams are the external face of a much deeper rift along political and religious lines and we see a city – if not a country – simmering with barely-repressed rage and contempt.
The central plot – the nineteen-year-old murder of the young girl – is cleverly constructed and a frozen lake on the verge of thaw provides the enabler for the perfect crime.
Just twenty minutes later, he was walking back across the ice on his own, every step washing away behind him, every footprint slipping softly into the lake. The crunch of foot on snow and the glide of boot on the icy bridge to neverland disappeared without trace. All he and she had ever been were ghosts and every sign of them had become lost in the blue.
Misdirection and judicious use of point-of-view combine to keep the reader guessing to the end. The gritty feel of Snapshot is present, but tempered with a cold so deep and bitter as to be almost Scandinavian, and the humour is as black and expletive-filled as ever, introducing some much-needed levity at points throughout the story’s progress.
Cold Grave comes with a much more human side than its predecessor, in the relationships between Rachel Narey and her father, and between the protagonists and the unidentified dead girl. Even so, it maintains the dark and darkly-comic style that made Snapshot so appealing. Robertson, keenly observant and with a well-tuned ear, takes us on a tour of a rarely-seen side of Glasgow in the company of characters who, while not always likeable, are nonetheless easy to spend time with. Cold Grave is another excellent novel from a man quickly becoming one of the best crime writers in Scotland, if not Britain.
|THE BLACK PATH
Translated by Marlaine Delargy
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Late last summer, MacLehose Press published Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Despite multiple attempts in my review to convince people that it was the third book in the series, it turns out that it was, actually, the fourth. MacLehose’s latest Larsson release, bearing the much less unwieldy title of The Black Path, is the missing third book:
Do you remember what happened?
Rebecka Martinsson saw her dead friend lying there on the gravel in Poikkijärvi. And the world shattered. And they had to hold onto her to stop her walking into the river.
This is the third book.
Once again we find ourselves in the cold and snowy wastes of Sweden’s little section of the Arctic Circle. When a woman is found, frozen solid, in an unoccupied fishing hut, Kiruna detectives Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke are called in to investigate. When she thaws out, she is quickly identified – she has recently been in the news, after all – as part of the Kallis Mining management team. She appears to have been tortured before her death and, as the detectives investigate they discover that she is something of an enigma, even to those closest to her. Assisted by Rebecka Martinsson – freshly released from a psychiatric hospital and now working in the much less stressful environment of the Kiruna public prosecutor’s office – a second death is soon uncovered, shedding a whole new light on the investigation and the seemingly untouchable people involved.
Many of the elements that made Until Thy Wrath Be Past a winner for me are present once again here: the distinctly Swedish feel; the supernatural elements (much more subtle than previously, but definitely present); the wonderful characters and pitch-perfect story-telling. The Black Path is told in good part in the form of flashbacks, from various different points of view (Mella’s is, perhaps, conspicuous by its absence, although she remains central to the plot). Through this manner we get to watch the central characters develop, not only Martinsson, but also the dead woman, her brother, her friend, and various other characters that will have important roles as the plot plays out. This is a book defined by its characters and their relationships with each other; there is undoubtedly a mystery to be solved, but it is much less important than the interpersonal dynamics (if I can be allowed that small digression into management-speak) that led to the murder, Larsson once more focussing on the why rather than the who or the how.
The two main characters (I’m still slightly baffled by the fact that these books are all identified as “A Rebecka Martinsson Investigation”), while only appearing for around half of the book between them, are still the most powerful driving force behind this story. Here we have two very different women – the fragile and insecure Martinsson, and the brash, no-nonsense Mella – who somehow grow as friends as the story progresses and seem to fit comfortably together, despite their differences. There is a description early on that, for me, summed up the differences perfectly:
Martinsson watched them and thought there was a faint, but clearly perceptible sensual signal in that way of pushing aside the hair, the fingers following the strand of hair to the very end. On their way back to the knee or the arm of the chair, the tips of the fingers fleetingly brushed the chin or the mouth.
Mella watched the same movements and thought they were always bloody fiddling with their faces, like junkies.
These are quirky, loveable characters that, for some reason, remind me of the characters from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. It’s a difficult balance to strike: the dark business of murder and corruption coupled with characters whose sanity depends on their sense of humour, and the banality of their everyday lives, without ever reaching the level of satire or outright comedy. Larsson achieves it, seemingly effortlessly, producing a story that moves from horror to laughs and back again in the blink of an eye.
The Black Path is, ultimately, a collection of character studies disguised as a piece of cleverly-plotted crime fiction. Three-dimensional characters, beautiful, freezing locations and a puzzle that will keep you guessing to the end combine to make this a compelling and hugely entertaining read. Åsa Larsson proves, once again, that when it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction, she is the one to beat, and cements her place on my own personal “must read” list.
|IN HER BLOOD
Annie Hauxwell (www.anniehauxwell.com)
William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/william-heinemann)
Catherine Berlin is an investigator for the Financial Services Authority, working as part of a task force whose remit is to clamp down on London’s illegal loan shark businesses. Working with an informant she knows only as ‘Juliet Bravo’, Berlin continues an investigation into East End shark Archie Doyle despite the fact that her superiors have closed the case and warned her off. Berlin’s life is complicated by the fact that, aged 55, she’s a registered drug addict, and receives daily doses of pharmaceutical heroin from one of the few doctors left in Britain with a license to prescribe it. When both her informant and her doctor are brutally murdered, Berlin finds herself in the middle of two investigations in which police consider her as a major player. With seven days before her stash of heroin runs out – and any clarity of mind that the drug brings with it – Berlin is up against the clock not only to find her next fix, but also to find the killer and clear her own name.
Hauxwell’s first novel takes no time in getting to the point. As the book opens, we find Berlin standing at the edge of the Limehouse Basin, watching her informant floating in the water below. We quickly get a feel for the character, and the people she is dealing with – the talkative Dempster, the quiet Thompson and the almost farcically stupid Flint. Berlin is a character that is difficult to like, but as the ever-luckless antihero, we find ourselves rooting for her nonetheless, as she moves from one bad day to the next. She’s a woman on the edge, impending withdrawal driving her as hard as the need to know, to find out the truth. And behind it all a black sense of humour that usually serves to rub people the wrong way, but which makes her more human in the eye of the reader.
The plot is complex and involved, but not so much that it will turn the casual reader off. Characters are interconnected in myriad unexpected ways, and a web of relationships, and of cause and effect, forms as the novel progresses. Despite the complexity, and multiple strands, the author manages to maintain complete control – no obvious plot holes or dangling story arcs here; Hauxwell weaves the threads into such an accomplished and coherent whole that it’s easy forget that this is the work of a first-time novelist.
Characterisation is the only area where the book doesn’t quite reach its full potential. While Berlin comes to us fully formed, some of the other characters can be a bit lacking in original personality, cardboard cut-outs from a thousand gritty dramas set in and around the East End of London: the wheeler-dealing gangster; the bent cop; a handful of others. What’s interesting, and what makes the novel stand out from many of those others, is the ambiguity built in to all of these people. There is no black and white here, but varying shades of grey that serve Hauxwell’s purpose well: these are all ordinary people acting under extraordinary circumstances; no-one, least of all the reader, can anticipate how these people will react in these situations, and as a result they sometimes do so in unexpected ways, with surprising consequences.
Dark and gritty, Hauxwell’s debut combines wonderful sense of place (and cold), interesting (if somewhat stereotypical) characters, and a complex and moreish plot into the perfect example of what was once called (and may still be, though it’s not a phrase I’ve seen in a few years) “Brit noir”. There’s enough humour to keep it from being dreary and depressing, and enough action to keep it moving at a good pace. Catherine Berlin, demons included, makes for a surprising and bold choice of central character, but ultimately has the charisma to carry it off and leave the reader hoping for her return in future instalments. Hauxwell is an author who evidently takes great delight in putting her characters through the mill and, on several occasions throughout the book, we find ourselves wondering “what can she possibly throw at this poor woman next?”. In Her Blood is a fine crime novel, and a wonderful debut from a writer who looks set to give the cream of British crime fiction a run for their money.