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.
Iain Banks (www.iain-banks.net)
Little Brown (www.littlebrown.co.uk)
I didn’t have to read too far into Iain Banks’ latest novel, Stonemouth, to realise that I’ve been more than a little unfair to him over the course of the past few years. As a younger man, I read The Crow Road, having enjoyed the BBC television adaptation. I remember very little about either TV series or novel – vague memories of a game played while driving at night that involved identifying cars in the distance by the shape of their taillights – except that I enjoyed both immensely, which should speak more to my atrocious long-term memory than to the skill of the author. Since then, I have avoided Banks’ work, a little voice in the back of my head repeating the mantra that here was an author with nothing to offer me, a man who exists too far along the literary spectrum to appeal to my baser sensibilities.
As Stonemouth opens we find ourselves standing on a bridge with Stewart Gilmour. Stewart is back in his home town – the north-eastern Scottish town of the book’s title – after a five year exile, punishment for an unnamed sin committed against the Murstons, the town’s premier criminal family. He has returned for a funeral, the funeral of Donald Murston’s father, at the old man’s request, and it is immediately clear that he is back under sufferance, and with the understanding that he is gone again as soon as the funeral is over. As Stewart settles in, and gets reacquainted with old friends, we begin to get glimpses into his past, growing up in Stonemouth, and his budding relationship with the girl who would turn out to be the love of his life, Ellie Murston. And, as the weekend progresses, it becomes apparent that not everyone is aware of Stewart and Donald’s agreement, leaving the young man wondering if he’s likely to make it through his stay in one piece.
Stonemouth is part coming-of-age story, part (lost) love story, part small-town gangster story. It’s a frequently laugh-out-loud portrait of life in a small town as seen through the eyes of someone who has been away for some time and has returned to find something at once familiar and completely alien. Banks has tapped into a younger generation, and his portrayal of these people – people in their mid-twenties, straddling that fine line between the last lingering remnants of youth and true adulthood – is spot on. Everyone we meet over the course of this weekend is introduced to the reader in terms of their school relationship to Stewart – he was in the year above, she was two years below, he was in the same year – as if everything in this town revolves around, and is defined by, school. There are also more obvious traits, which quickly begin to get under the reader’s skin, but which do define people of a certain age in this country, such as the ubiquitous question mark, turning random statements into meaningless questions:
Jolie played with her empty G&T glass, revolving it on the white tablecloth. ‘Oh, just because they take over your life. They become your life. I sort of had plans? But, well.’
The novel simmers with barely-repressed violence throughout, and when we learn exactly what Stewart has done – in a reveal about halfway through that is, quite simply, a work of genius – it’s clear why the Murstons are out for his blood. Aside from Ellie’s brothers – certifiably nuts, each and every one – there’s the imposing figure of Powell Imrie, and every wannabe on the streets of Stonemouth out to make a name for himself by bringing the head of Stewart Gilmour to Donald Murston. Banks knows how to ratchet up the tension and there are a handful of scenes that leave you forgetting to breathe. When violence does finally erupt, it comes from an unexpected direction, catching the reader completely unawares, and is all the more effective for it.
Stonemouth shows a writer comfortable and confident in his chosen field. Perfectly plotted and beautifully written, it presents a cast of characters that fairly leap off the page from the outset. It is a funny novel – there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments – but its power lies in characters with whom we can identify – the banter between Stewart and best friend Ferg, for example, spotlights two very believable people that we may have, at some stage in the dim and distant past, known or even, in some cases, been – and a story in which we can invest to the point where the outcome is as important to the reader as it is to Stewart Gilmour. Banks is a writer not to be missed (and certainly not to be consigned to the “too literary for my liking” shelf) and, on the strength of Stonemouth, is arguably one of the most entertaining and exciting talents working in Britain today. He is a writer worth your attention, and Stonemouth should be on everyone’s “must-read” list this year.
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
Glasgow, present day, and someone – a man with a high-powered rifle and a scope to match – is taking out the rulers of the city’s underbelly: drug dealers, murderers, extortionists. As the body count grows and war breaks out amongst the various underground factions, the Strathclyde Police find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to solve a crime, and stop a murderer that the rest of the world is lauding as a hero.
Snapshot, Robertson’s second novel, centres on the characters of Tony Winter and Rachel Narey. Winter is a police photographer, a gifted man who enjoys his work a little bit too much. He’s a leftover from an earlier time, fighting to stay in employment in a time when crime scene photography is increasingly becoming the domain of the crime scene investigators, Jacks-of-all-trades in an environment where saving money is key. Tony has a problem, a need to photograph the dead that borders on obsession, an itch to capture people on the borderline between life and death. Detective Sergeant Narey, who appeared in Robertson’s first novel, Random, returns here to investigate another high-profile case, despite the office politics that remove her from the investigation for a short time.
Snapshot is one of those novels for which the clichés breakneck and gripping, amongst others, were seemingly invented. Opening on a crime scene which introduces us to the key players in as economical a way as possible, the book maintains a frenetic pace for its 400-page duration. We are immediately immersed in the sights and sounds of modern Glasgow, and Robertson has no problem littering both narrative and dialogue with words and phrases that, to an outsider, can sometimes be difficult to understand. Don’t worry, though, you’re unlikely to miss anything important – an insult or jibe between friends. It feels natural and is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, which offsets the grim central plot, a gruesome collection of dead bodies as seen through the lens of Tony Winter’s camera.
Winter is a strange character to put in the central role. He’s not a particularly likeable man, with his slightly creepy hobby and his whiny attitude: Winter is a civilian employed by the police force. As a result, he is outside the main body of the investigation and not privy to the information they are gathering, or the theories upon which they are working. As a result, he is prone to frequent strops when his friends, Narey and Addison, both key players on the team, withhold information from him. I for one wanted to throttle the man and tell him to get on with his work and stop his moaning on more than one occasion. But for all that, the book works, and you care enough for this man to want him to make it out the other side.
The only problem I have with the book is the cover – this sort of stock photography makes a lot of these British thrillers look the same and can, for me, be very off-putting. But it’s a minor quibble, given what lies behind that cover. Dark and darkly-humorous, thrilling and highly addictive, Snapshot is an excellent novel from a self-assured and talented author who has found his stride early in the game.