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Murders for October

Edinburgh, exploitation and epicurean excess

The finalists for Scotland’s McIlvanney Prize were Callum McSorley’s Squeaky Clean (already reviewed), Denise Mina’s The Second Murderer (Harvill Secker, 2023, £18.99), Robbie Morrison’s Cast A Cold Eye and Craig Russell’s The Devil’s Playground (already reviewed). Of them, the most problematic is the Morrison (Macmillan, 2023). Set in a very violent Glasgow of 1933, it takes forward Jimmy Dreghorn — a troubled detective introduced in Edge of the Grave. Dreghorn is interesting, and the plot moves along well, but most of the characters lack depth. The history, essentially the playing through of Ireland 1916–21 in Glasgow, is not just deeply flawed but outright propagandistic. Churchill sanctioned killers; Special Branch are planting bombs, etc. Given that many believe that Mossad and the CIA were responsible for 9/11, Morrison should have much success.

Penitent, Mark Leggatt (Fledging Press, £10.99)

Mina’s book is far better. A pastiche of Chandler, this sets Philip Marlowe in pursuit of a missing heiress, Chrissie Montgomery. The plot, tone and characterisation are pitch perfect, and there is a skilful interweaving with the art market and with lesbianism. This was the best of the four for me, but McSorley won the prize — even though he missed the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize, which went to The Maiden, as I suggested last time it should.

Penitent by Mark Leggatt (Fledging Press, 2023, £10.99) is a more impressive work than Cast A Cold Eye, although also keen on conspiracies. In this case, they are about murderous corruption in the Edinburgh élite — specifically to do with the killing of rent boys. Protecting themselves and the Prime Minister, the sinister figures at the top (political and legal) have the police hierarchy and secret service at their behest, but an autistic lawyer they have set out as a fall guy goes on the run and brings down the system. Gripping and impressive in its knowledge and energy. I recommend this one.

Heidi Amsinck’s The Girl in the Photo (Muswell Press, 2023, £9.95) is the paperback version of a work first published in 2022. This story takes forward with success the characters in her My Name is Jensen (2021). Copenhagen has changed greatly in this well-etched attempt to draw links between three murders:

The restaurant was of a kind Jensen didn’t think existed in Copenhagen anymore. Oak panelling and brass oil lamps suspended from a low ceiling. Green leather benches and chairs set around small tables decked in starched white tablecloths … All that and not a single ironic hipster barman in sight.

A clever plot, good writing and interesting characters, even if the solution was not really a surprise, not the nature of the villainy. Deserves a read.

Neil Humphry’s Lost Women (2023) is an excellent Inspector Low story. The dark side of Singapore is to the fore in this bleak tale of trafficking, sexual exploitation, corruption and complacency. The murders are ugly. It is a well-written account, though, with the unravelling of the plot satisfactorily and indeed engrossing. The asocial Low is the difficult hero of the novel. Many will warm to the reflections of Low and Humphry, as in “Criminals were the priority … And they couldn’t be caught at a staff appraisal”.

The Mysterious Double Death of Honey Black, Lisa Hall (Hera, £8.99)

Lisa Hall’s The Mysterious Double Death of Honey Black (Hera, 2023, £8.99) has a very interesting premise. Lily Jones, a British expatriate working in 2019 as a chambermaid at the Beverly Hills Hotel, cracks her head in the room where the actress Honey Black [no relation] — “She’s Marilyn, before Marilyn is even a thing” — was killed in 1949. She is somehow transported back to just before then. Hired as Honey’s PA, she tries to stop this murder. A 2019 observer on 1949 means too many #MeToo comments, and there is not really a full entry into Hollywood-noir, but: “There is an Alice sensation to the whole scene — an absurd feeling that I have fallen down some kind of rabbit hole into another dimension, tumbling over and over myself until I no longer know what is real and what isn’t.” Moreover, the writing is not actually original. Too much of “ … the skin on my scalp prickles”, and the villain’s identity and motive are somewhat predictable.

Rachel Lynch’s The Rich (Canelo, 2023, £9.99) could also do with a rewrite to improve the prose. I would also ditch the product placement. More positively, although some of the characters lack interest, the plot works and has a good twist. Holiday reading — that is, if you are airport-stuck and there are no better books.

Dinuka McKenzie’s The Torrent (Canelo, 2023, £9.99) takes the climatic disasters of her native Australia to the heart of this vigorous novel. Touched off by a death in the storm and a violent assault in a supermarket robbery, this assured work presents the strains in the heart of rural Australia, whilst also drawing attention to rifts within the police force.

In Richard Wendorf’s The Subtle Thief (Conrad Press, 2023), artistry finds its author in the epicurean excess and luxurious prose of a murderous exposure of New York high life. Food, sex and art are to the fore as identities are contested. The art critic Desmond Fairbrother, and his sidekick authoress and lover Abigail Higginson, are sybarites for those who like their murders of that type.

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