Murders for September
This year’s Bloody Scotland Debut Prize shortlist is noteworthy, and all five of the books helped ease an unseasonable last month.
Kate Foster’s The Maiden (Mantle, 2023, £14.99) successfully adds the historical dimension. A first-rate historical murder, set in Edinburgh in 1679, it provides a well-grounded account of the grimness of life at all social levels, from brothel to stately home, particularly the mistreatment of women. Based on the execution at the Maiden (a guillotine-type decapitator) of Christian Nimmo for slaying her lover and uncle by marriage Lord James Forrester on the grounds of his Corstorphine Castle, this is a fictional scenario with a largely imaginary but very well-realised cast of characters. The reading of the past has some elements of presentism, but it is spot on as far as the inequities of the period are concerned. The Maiden is a brilliant read — well-paced, with plentiful short, well-constructed chapters moving between the two main narrators: Christian and Forrester’s bought-in-prostitute Violet. Rita Fiddes, the brother-keeper, is a powerful presence: “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could be storming up the high street and she would most likely sell the beasts for pie meat when their masters’ backs were turned.” The exigencies of finance and debt are felt hard at all ranks, as are the sexual demands of men and the hypocrisies of society, whilst disease and the kirk do not cast their shadows but thrust their baleful presences to the fore. A superb novel that for this historian gives proof that some non-historians can indeed write excellent historical fiction.
Heather Darwent’s Things We Do To Our Friends (Viking, 2023, £14.99) is definitely an impressive work and comes well-recommended. A Lord of the Flies set in a self-obsessed “Sliver” of Edinburgh student life, this draws together show, female self-awareness and toxic friendship, social longings and tensions, the uncertainties of class at all levels, and a fin de siècle destructiveness of self and others. An accomplished work, with some fine writing from the start, it tries possibly too hard on the descriptions. Some work; others not. Try these from early on:
… summer … Now, these months are oppressive, caked to his life like dry mud on a car … the sour smell of my solitude.
I think these work better than the following Edinburgh introduction: “… soon a dampish fog obscured it all, like a bundle of laundry pulled dripping from the washing machine, then pinned up.” The book may not work too well if you find the toxic friendship theme somewhat repetitive, but definitely worth reading.
Callum McSorley provides a very different milieu in Squeaky Clean (Pushkin Vertigo, £16.99): an account of urban degradation, organised crime, social misery, police corruption and hard men, with a brilliant plot, some wit, both in story and language (“The guy was built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his statesman years”). It has convincing central characters, notably Alison McCoist, a much brighter copper than her colleagues imagine, and Davey Burnet, a much put-upon carwash employee trying to gain “agency”. The language sometimes requires concentration, though much of it is fairly clear. “Listen tae yer fuckin sel, ye sound like wan ae they sad bastarts whose best years were in secondary school, afore they ’ve even had a real fuckin life. Golden age, glory days, it’s aw bollocks. Get a fuckin grip.” Tough and impressive, but will not be waved around by the Glasgow tourist board.
Heather Critchlow’s Unsolved (Canelo, 2023, £8.99) is set in her native rural Aberdeenshire. It is intended as the first in a series focused on Cal Lovett, who has a true crime podcast: Finding Justice. An interview with a serial killer kicks off the book in which Lovett’s collapsing marriage is an insistent backdrop to a cold case: the disappearance in 1986 of a young waitress named Layla. The past disappearance of Lovett’s sister Margot also plays a role in the plot, but Layla is to the fore, and much of the story is set in 1986. Her active sex life conflicts with the controlling assumptions of men. Writing in an economical and effective fashion, focusing on the plot and not on word-pictures, and offering credible characters, Critchlow has written what is at once an impressive puzzle and a good novel about modern life. One to watch.
Fulton Ross’s The Unforgiven Dead (Inkshares, 2023, £20.99) is full of references to the mythology of Gaelic Scotland. It applies these to explain the murder of Faye Chichester, the daughter of a wealthy landowner out to reintroduce wolves. The novel is a bit Dan Brown meets the Highlands, with the supernatural far more to the fore as a series of deaths are explained in a plot in which a policeman with second sight plays a key role. Some will like this, but the novel seems highly overwrought whilst the typeface of the American printers is unattractive. The writing is often pedestrian — “He tore his eyes away from his wife … so much life unlived. All that potential snuffed out … This was a room of death … his stomach churned … he swallowed the rising bile.” The comparisons frequently do not work, as with Dunbirlinn Castle to “an eerie hybrid creature”. The only one of the novels I did not enjoy.
It can be the kiss of death for a reviewer to opine on a short list, but, without in any way offering more than a personal reflection, The Maiden is my clear first, Unsolved second, Squeaky Clean third, Things We Do To Our Friends fourth and The Unforgiven Dead fifth. This reflects not just interest in the plot but also quality and clarity of writing. It is noticeable how many of the writers present women as victims but also as independent agents. The prize shortlist is very encouraging, and it is also instructive that Darwent, Foster and McSorley are longlisted for the main McIlvanney Prize, alongside big names like Val McDermid and Rankin.
As methodical and deliberate as his protagonist, Inspector Joseph French, who is under the sway of “My Lady Nicotine”, Freeman Wills Crofts (1879–1957) published from his excellent The Cask (1920) until 1957. Many of his detective novels are ignored today, although several, notably The Hog’s Back Mystery and The 12.30 from Croydon have been republished in the British Library’s Crime Classics series. Borrowing two first editions, I found them similar in involving apparent suicides that are found thus by coroners’ juries, only subsequently to be revealed as murders. Sudden Death (1932) is an impressive work, with the suicides that are revealed as murders, and both protagonists who take turns in that role. As a result, the crime is presented from the perspective of a member of the household (and suspect) and that of Inspector French. The two murders in Sudden Death are both locked room cases but with very different solutions, although both require diagrams. The misdirection is excellent; if I got the who, I did not guess the hows. There is a reference to Sherlock Holmes (“It seems like the Speckled Band over again”) and a maid reads a thriller, but otherwise we are on our own as French takes his lengthy way to working it out.
The End of Andrew Harrison (1938) concerns first the disappearance of the great and unpleasant financier and then his suicide, which, again, turns out to be murder. The explanation reflects Crofts’ knowledge of practical engineering applied alongside French’s diligent persistent skill, but the wrong person very nearly is convicted in what again is a successful misdirection. Slow and steady, with great attention to detail, French is an appropriate detective for Crofts. Poirot discusses him in The Clocks (1963) as Cyril Quain, a pipe-smoker who is a “master” of the intricate alibi, albeit with a formulaic character for the latter: “It is true that nothing particularly thrilling happens in his books … I enjoy trying to catch Mr Cyril Quain out. … The alibis resemble each other every time … I imagine this Cyril Quain sitting in his room, smoking his pipe … sitting there with around him the A.B.C.’s, the continental Bradshaws, the air-line brochures, the time-tables of every kind … there is order and method in Mr Cyril Quain.”
Petra Hammesfahr’s The Sinner (Bitter Lemon Press, 2007, £8.99), the translation of a 1999 German original, is a why murder? We are told about Cora Bender’s killing of a man by the lake near the outset, but Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian’s journey through his past makes it possible to understand the act of a woman traumatised by rape. Cocaine, misogyny and violence all contribute to the mix. This is a powerful novel about the evil inflicted on people and how they respond, sometimes with violence.
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