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There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union by Reginald Hill

Harper, 2009, 363 p.

This is not my normal reading fare but the good lady knew I’d recently read Jane Austen’s Emma and wondered how I’d react to this author’s take on the characters from that book. Hill is the creator of the detective duo Dalziel and Pascoe about whom he has written twenty-four books. This is a collection of his shorter works and was originally published in 1987. That “Featuring Dalziel and Pascoe” is emblazoned on the front cover is a bit of a cheek. Only one of the six stories here does so and that tangentially at best. Also irritating is that all the story titles are rendered entirely in lower case.

there are no ghosts in the soviet union is a detective tale featuring Inspector Lev Chislenko. (I admit that my first thought with that name was of the famous Igor who played for Dynamo. Being questioned whether he is related to that footballer becomes a running joke through the piece.) Chislenko has been called in to resolve the case of a man being pushed into a lift and immediately falling through the floor, which remains as solid as it always was and there is no trace of him at the foot of the shaft. The obvious explanation is that the man was a ghost. Consequently ideological considerations beset Chislenko. “There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union,” is apparently the set-up line to a Soviet joke but also an assertion that he must find a way to uphold. The story is obviously intended as a satire on the Soviet Union – or at least on how Hill imagined the Soviet Union to be – but is equally applicable to any authoritarian regime anywhere. The resolution depends on Chislenko’s delving into the lift’s origins. It was manufactured in Chemnitz (renamed Karl-Marx Stadt after World War 2) in the 1920s and installed in a now demolished building elsewhere before being re-used in a money skimming scam. His investigations also bring him into dangerous contact with powerful figures in Soviet circles.

In bring back the cat! Joe Sixsmith is a balding West Indian (with a balding jacket) who has just begun his career as a private detective. He is called in by a Mrs Ellison to find her cat which has been missing for three weeks. In the course of his investigations all over one afternoon, he uncovers various family secrets and solves another case entirely, thus making his name. There’s an overt consciousness of racism to some of the exchanges. (Sixsmith was later to become the protagonist of another series of Hill’s books.)

the bull ring is set in the British military training camp at Étaples during the Great War. One of the instructors is excessively harsh on recruit Harry. For Harry’s own good he would say; but Harry doesn’t see it that way.

Dalziel and Pascoe do not appear as such in auteur theory. It is the actors who are playing them on a film set who do. The one playing Pascoe has long been on the way down as an actor and is now saddled with a tyro leading lady who is the director’s new wife. It also includes the bearded writer of the novel which is being filmed (we are, I suppose, meant to assume Hill is writing about himself,) who is becoming more and more annoyed at changes to the script. The story starts with a warning injunction, Nothing in this story is what it seems. You should remember that. The metafictional games in it do not lift it above the category ‘diverting’.

poor emma takes up twenty or so years after Jane Austen left off her tale of Emma Woodhouse and her misguided attempts at match-making. The intervening years have not been kind, though Mr Woodhouse continues, like a creaky gate, to, as we Scots say, “hing lang”. Mr Weston has died and his widow, in a sentence carved from early nineteenth century attitudes and would-be Austen impersonation “eventually declined into religion, to such an extent that it came as no surprise, though an incalculable shock to most decent people, when she embraced the doctrines of Rome.” Mr Knightley has neglected his affairs, indulging himself as a bon vivant and taken up a seat in Parliament (which allows him various other indulgences.) His brother John has lost the confidence of his legal clients and now runs Donwell Abbey on George’s behalf. The conflict comes from the wishes of both to protect that inheritance. All the main characters from Emma reappear, save Jane Fairfax, except for mention of her death. Her husband Mr Frank Churchill is involved in the dénouement. The Mr Knightley shown here is far removed from the one Austen portrayed and so too is Emma herself as she indulges in an action which that younger self would surely never have contemplated but which does have the effect of giving the tale a condign ending.

crowded hour concerns the invasion into her home by two armed men of a woman whose husband is somewhat obscurely rich and has absences from home. It begins, “At twelve noon there were three people in that house. By the time the clock struck one, two of them would be dead and the life of the third would have changed for ever.” The story lies in the journey that beginning implies.

Pedant’s corner:- “led him out in to” (into,) humourously (humorously,) “‘How’s you mother?’” (your,) smidgeon (smidgin; or, smidgen,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “his legal practise” (the noun is practice, as used later, I note,) “a codicillary convenant” (covenant, surely?) “had showed” (this may have been an attempt at Austenism; ‘had shown’.)

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2019, 363 p.

The title on the cover of this is preceded by the words “A Jackson Brodie novel.” After her initial success with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, followed by two less well received novels (one of which I reviewed here) Atkinson went on to write four novels featuring her private detective of that name. She then embarked on technically accomplished (and more ambitious) novels dealing with the fallout from World War 2 in A God in Ruins, Life After Life and Transcription.

The action here revolves around towns on the Yorkshire coast in the area of Whitby and Scarborough, the hangover from the activities of two since-jailed local child abuse abetters called Bassani and Carmody, and the present-day sex-trafficking partnership of a group of golfing friends.

Oh, and there’s a murder. That, though, is resolved off-stage and does not impinge much on proceedings.

Big Sky has at least ten viewpoint characters and its chapters tend to be short – sometimes with very short sections within them from some of those different viewpoints. All this conspires to make the experience of reading Big Sky bitty.

There was something about the writing here that I found a little off. A misjudgement of tone, (female detectives named Ronnie Dubicki and Reggie Chase. Detectives called Ronnie and Reggie. Seriously?) unnecessary repetitions of phrases – though perhaps some of this was to imply Vince Ives was protesting too much – and intersecting timelines which were not well handled so that we saw the same scene’s events repeated very soon after their first appearance but with very little difference in the reader’s sense of what had occurred. Combined with the occasional descent into cliché this gave the impression, to this one anyway, that Atkinson was writing down to her readers.

This is no A God in Ruins nor a Life After Life, nor a Transcription even, but perhaps after her achievements in those books Atkinson needed a rest – or to have some fun. She overdid it though.

Pedant’s corner:- On a visit to a museum Brodie tells his son Captain Cook was the ‘first man to sail around the world.’ (No. That would be members of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition [Magellan himself did not survive the journey.]) Croyden (Croydon?) “she had strived hard” (striven,) “he’d compèred Saturday Night at the London Palladium (Sunday Night surely?) “It was a raucous lot that were in tonight” (that was in,) crack cocaine is implied to have been a drug widespread in the 1970s, (it wasn’t till the 80s) focussing (focusing.) “None of them were” (none of them was,) Mellors’ (several times, Mellors’s,) “his act finished on such a crescendo” (such a climax.) The remains of a handsome sunset was still staining the sky” (the remains … were still staining,) a missing full stop. “With his luck he would bob around till the lifeboat found him or a stray fishing vessel” (has its syntax awry; why would a lifeboat find a stray fishing vessel? Try instead, ‘till the lifeboat or a stray fishing vessel found him’,) staunch (stanch,) focussed (focused,) “the news’ afterburn” (the news’s,) staunched (stanched,) “where a cluster of bridesmaids … were waiting for them” (where a cluster …. was waiting.)

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

John Murray, 2014, 362 p.

It was strange reading this during a Covid lockdown. In the background of this novel is traced the progress of a disease known colloquially as “the sweats” – fever, vomiting, diarrhœa – which seems to kill most of those who contract it. The differences between what most novelists used to imagine such an epidemic would bring in its train (selfishness basically) and what transpired in real life (cooperation and compliance, mostly) are marked. Future disaster novels may need to take a different tack. But then again “the sweats” appears more virulent than Covid and its mode of transmission (not really elucidated in the book) less amenable to preventive measures.

The actual plot of the book is more of a straightforward thriller. Stevie (Stefanie,) a presenter on a shopping channel, starts off worrying why her boyfriend, Simon Sharkey, a flashy surgeon, did not meet her as planned nor contact her later. When she goes to his flat she finds him dead, apparently not in suspicious circumstances. She soon begins to exhibit the effects of “the sweats,” suffering alone in her flat for days but is one of the seemingly few who survive catching it. A note left for her by him asks her to deliver a laptop he’d left in her loft specifically to a Mr Reah (and only him) at the hospital where he worked. The reception she gets there raises her suspicions. Reah is also dead and the other medics seem very keen on getting the package from her. The rest of the book is concerned with her search to find out why Simon died and who killed him.

Welsh’s first two books, The Cutting Room and Tamburlaine Must Die were superb. She seemed to shift tack a bit with her next few, straying further into crime/thriller territory. This, the first in a trilogy (The Plague Times,) is firmly within that category. To my mind it suffers by that. Welsh’s writing, though, cannot really be faulted.

Pedant’s corner:- sneakers (why this USianism? Welsh uses the term trainers, as well as sneakers, later,) bannister (banister,) “the letter from beyond the dead” (seems oddly phrased. It’s usually ‘beyond the grave’ but the person in question hadn’t had a burial/cremation at this point,) “a cellophane-wrapped syringe” (unlikely to be cellophane, that’s far too brittle to be wrapping syringes in. ‘plastic-wrapped’ or ‘bubble-packed’,) Amir Kahn (Amir Khan,) Summers’ (several instances, Summers’s,) “electoral role “ (roll,) Forth Railway Bridge (that’s the original, it doesn’t need a qualifying adjective; Forth Bridge,) “the name Fibrosyop discretely etched on a sign” (separately etched? Singly etched? Or discreetly – ie subtly, tastefully, modestly – etched? Perhaps Welsh meant ‘etched in isolation’, in which case it’s fine.)

Cold Winter in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Quartet, 2014, 237 p.

 Cold Winter in Bordeaux cover

This is the third of Massie’s Bordeaux series, set in that city during World War 2. The first, Death in Bordeaux, I reviewed here, the second, Dark Summer in Bordeaux, here.

In this one Police Superintendent Jean Lannes is called in to investigate the death of Gabrielle Peniel whose body was found strangled and sordidly arranged. It looks like a crime of passion as in pre-war times – which Lannes would welcome as a relief from having to juggle French law with German oversight – but he senses something amiss. Peniel was a piano teacher to young girls and it is soon revealed she was a procuress for men who had such a taste.

In terms of the book’s thrust the murder is something of a red herring. Massie is really only using the crimes Lannes investigates as hooks to hang his series on. As Cold Winter in Bordeaux unfolds it is more obvious that he is illustrating the exigencies of living under occupation, the compromises that must be made, the care that has to be exercised. At one point he has Lannes reflect, “conversations all over France went round in circles, and said nothing.” In his home life Lannes’s wife Marguerite has withdrawn from him as she blames him for letting their younger son Alain go to join the Free French in London (where he has been found suitable to be recruited by the SOE and parachuted back into France,) his elder son Dominique is still employed by the Government in Vichy, his daughter Clothilde fallen in love with the Michel whom Lannes always thought unsuitable for her but she is unhappy that due to the influence of his cousin Sigi, Michel has joined the Legion of French volunteers against Bolshevism, so looks set for the Russian Front. However, news of the US landings in French North Africa, the possibility that they promise of a positive outcome to the war, gives a new charge to those longing for exactly that.

It may be a means to underline the claustrophobia of life under occupation but the circles in which the novel works itself out again feel too small, the connections between the characters and Lannes’s own life and problems too close. The last chapter mentions one François Mitterand as setting up a group of ex-POWs, probably for resistance purposes. This feels like too much of a wink to the reader with knowledge of subsequent French history.

It is though all very readable and well enough written. It is also a reminder that in bad times people may be forced to accede to acts they would in other circumstances shun.

Pedant’s corner:- In response to an allusion, Lannes says he’s never read Dickens and that, “My English novelists are Walter Scott and Stevenson.” Both were of course Scottish, not English, which Massie could not be unaware of, but would his protagonist Lannes be unaware? Surely not. I suppose, though, he could argue he was speaking of English language novelists. Otherwise; “when they had first met – at the time of …….., himself now dead, Lannes – had” (has that second hyphen misplaced: ‘when they had first met – at the time of …….., himself now dead – Lannes had’,) Michael (Michel,) Travaux Ruraux’ (Travaux Ruraux’s,) a missing end quote mark after a piece of dialogue, a missing comma before one (x 3,) “his copy book spotless” (copybook,) a missing full stop, “more than couple of hours a night” (more than a couple.) “He wore only a singlet despite the freezing weather and a pair of blue cotton trousers” (syntax, syntax; ‘He wore only a singlet despite a pair of blue cotton trousers?’ Put ‘Despite the freezing weather’ at the beginning of the sentence.)

After a Dead Dog by Colin Murray

Constable, 2007, 414 p

 After a Dead Dog cover

The author used to be an editor for Orbit and was in fact the person who bought my novel “A Son of the Rock” for publishing under that imprint. Unfortunately (for me) he left that post soon after and his replacement didn’t seem to take to my stuff. Ah well. Murray has since taken to writing himself and this was his first novel. By the evidence shown here his experiences of editing have not gone to waste.

There are, though, echoes/reminders throughout of the writing of Iain Banks, what with the setting in rural Scotland (here the Kintyre peninsula,) an ex-lover for whom the narrator still holds a torch (and who hasn’t quite got over him,) a family secret, a ‘big house’, a political connection and a crime – several crimes – to be unravelled. As in The Crow Road, which the text explicitly mentions, we start – Prologue excepted – with a funeral. The dialogue at times approaches the irreverence of the banter we meet in Banks but doesn’t quite have his zing and sparkle. The first person narrator, a more or less washed up poet turned TV scriptwriter, is even named Iain (Lewis,) though is for some reason often addressed by other characters as ‘Lewis, Iain.’

The funeral was that of Margaret Crawford, mother of Lewis’s first girl friend Carole (now Ferguson) whose relationship with him broke up shortly after the death of her father (attributed to suicide) more than a few years before. The Crawfords run a fish processing business in the town. At the funeral purvey Carole’s husband Duncan introduces Iain to a business associate from Dublin, Colm Kelly, and plies Iain with spiked drinks so that he will be arrested by the local bobbie for drink driving on his way home. Iain manages to avoid drinking them all, puzzling the copper, an old adversary from school, with his negative test. The plot then engages when Iain arrives home and finds a strange suitcase in his study. It contains money and packages with white powder in them. Wondering how, exactly, he would explain this circumstance to the police, he hides the suitcase. Shortly thereafter he finds Danny McGovern (who had earlier noticed a boat on the sea-loch making odd manoeuvres) dead in a caravan dragged from its usual position. Iain enlists the aid of his pal, crime reporter Dougie Henderson, to help him resolve his problem.

Iain’s narration is replete with allusion and more than the odd quotation – which will please the more highbrow reader – and we have enough degrees of skulduggery involving Kelly and New Labour politician and Scottish Executive Minister, Alan Baird to satisfy crime aficionados. Of Edinburgh Iain says it, “has a railway line where it ought to have a river, it’s not very nice to motorists and it’s always cold,” while its good people are positively icy. “If ever a city deserved a dyspeptic Duke it was Edinburgh.”

Murray spins a very good tale. Perhaps as a character Duncan is a bit underdrawn but Iain himself, Carole and Dougie are rounded personalities. The baddies are as baddies are, but then arguably that is as it should be. After a Dead Dog – an odd title but a quote from the Old Testament – is very readable stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Trick or treat?’” (while Murray correctly refers to the children coming round the doors at Hallowe’en as guisers, it is not usually the case – or wasn’t in my day – to ask this question. It was, however, expected that any child desiring largesse in the form of sweets or money from their hosts performed a party piece first as part of the implicit bargain involved,) Yeats’ (Yeats’s,) wifeys (usually spelled ‘wifies’.) “They were hewed from the same rock” (they were hewn,) “the Great Western Road, the Byres Road” (these well-known Glasgow thoroughfares don’t attract the definite article in local speech; they’re called Great Western Road and Byres Road,) “stamping ground” (isn’t the phrase ‘stomping ground’?) Stephane Grapelly (Grapelli,) “I felt like fool” (a fool,) Evans’ (Evans’s,) soccer (football!) “‘aren’t I?’” (said by Dougie Henderson. He’s Scottish, he would more likely say, ‘amn’t I?’)

Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Quartet, 2010, 284 p.

 Death in Bordeaux cover

Part One; Bordeaux, Spring 1940. A body is discovered and Superintendent Jean Lannes is called to investigate. He is acquainted with the deceased, Gaston Chambolley, whose penis has been cut off and placed in his mouth as if this were a crime committed because of Chambolley’s homosexuality. The body has been moved, though, and Lannes soon supects the motive was political rather than due to prejudice, disgust, or a sexual encounter gone wrong. Chambolley had been looking into the death of his brother Henri’s wife Pilar, a Spaniard active in the Republican movement.

The times hang over proceedings like a pall. Bordeaux’s mayor is a fascist and the city rife with prejudice against Spanish refugees, Reds and Jews. For the first half of the novel the Phoney War pervades the background, a threat merely delayed. Lannes’s son Dominique is in the army manning the Maginot line and his wife, Marguerite, sick with worry. Lannes’s brother-in-law, high up in local government, spouts the ruling party line. The supervising magistrate is keen to shut the inquiry down but Lannes and his colleagues do not like unsolved cases.

When Lannes is sent to the Comte de Grimaud who requests him to track down the source of poison pen letters about the Comte’s (fourth) wife, Miriam, he has been receiving, the murder case takes on a twist. Chambolley was an associate of the Comte’s grandson, Maurice, who seeks out Lannes to tell him he witnessed the possible murderers entering the ground floor of Chambolley’s apartment block the night he was killed. Further complications ensue when one of Chambolley’s contacts with the Spanish, Javier Cortazar, is also found murdered, again mutilated. This seems to lead only to another dead end, though.

The Comte’s heir, Edmond, another with fascist leanings – but national government contacts – continually warns Lannes off “disturbing” the family even after the Comte is found dead after a fall down the stairs. The de Grimaud housekeeper (in the long ago another of the Comte’s many sexual conquests, one of whom may even have been his own daughter, and the Comte the father of her illegitimate child) suspects that child, known variously as Marcel or Sigi, to be the perpetrator. On leaving a restaurant where he had been meeting Edmond, Lannes gets shot and it is possible that Edmond may have engineered this.

In Part Two the chapters do not have the date headings that Part One’s did, but we are several months down the line, Lannes is back on duty, his wounded son is in a POW camp and Bordeaux under German occupation. The justiciaire, however, will be left to its own sphere except in so far as crime is political and impinges on Germans or the occupation. Lannes’s other children, Clothilde and Alain, do not quite know how to interact with the German soldier billeted in the flat above theirs, but Marguerite now has to worry whether Alain will be drawn into something foolish.

Under the occasional disapproval of his new boss, an Alsatian called Schnyder (who privately laments to Lannes that many of his young countrymen will now be drafted into the Wehrmacht,) and of the supervising magistrate, Lannes still plugs away at the Chambolley/Cortazar case. A trip to Vichy, that deluded spa town, to interview Edmond confirms his powerlessness in the face of the new order.

Massie is a Scot but when out of the blue one character uses the Scots word blethers, it seemed a little odd in the mouth of a Frenchwoman. Then again, why not? The novel wasn’t written in French. Considering Massie’s previous work it seems something of a diversion for Massie to take on the crime novel as a form, though he has previously interrogated the French experience during the Second World War.

If it is the duty of the detective story to set the world to rights this one fails in that regard, at least in this volume. By its end things are worse than at the start, with the Germans in charge and little place for honest policemen, unless they can keep their heads well down, and the lives of the general populace circumscribed and compromised.

It is only the first in a quartet though. The other three are on my shelves.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannes’ (innumerable instances, Lannes’s – of which there were some examples,) a missing full stop (x 2,) “hadn’t know Pilar well” (known,) “they were praised her in her day” (no first ‘her’, or, no ‘in her’ needed,) Republiqué (République,) “of is being” (of his being,) “an dark blue handkerchief” (a dark blue,) inasmuchas (in as much as,) Clotilde (several times, usually Clothilde but, once, Cothilde,) a line indentation in the middle of a paragraph, “grande-me’re’s health” (grand-mère’s,) “‘That’s what I trying to get across’” (what I was trying to get across,) “‘in the matter of subject to investigation’” (in the matter subject to investigation,) “‘all I was thinking off’” (thinking of,) innumerable misplaced quotation marks some even reversed or missing, missing commas before or after direct speech, “the length of tis body” (its body,) “had spoken for a document” (of a document,) Cours del’Intendance? (Cours de l’Intendance,) “no doubt either than in a strange way” (that in a strange way,) “they had not see the count” (seen,) “Blind Man’s Bluff” (as I recall it was always Blind Man’s Buff,) “ad sit with him” (and sit,) “‘we should only to see good order maintained’” (we should only [seek?] to see good order maintained,) “without new masters” (with our new masters.) “‘Poor Jules,’ He said” (‘Poor Jules,’ he said,) “and is actress friend” (and his.) “Or an instant she responded” (For an instant,) “a hornet’s next” (nest,) “if not immediately than in time” (then in time,) “‘nobody in their right minds ever going to buy’” (nobody in their right mind’s ever.) “‘I sure of it’” (I’m sure of it,) “‘how would we fell afterwards’” (how would we feel afterwards,) “‘wsn’t she?’” (wasn’t she,) “the blossomed with a rush” (then blossomed,) Lanne (Lannes.)

Where the Bodies Are Buried by Chris Brookmyre

Abacus, 2012, 411 p.

 Where the Bodies Are Buried cover

Aspiring actress Jasmine Sharp is another of Brookmyre’s innocents brought into contact with violent criminals. Her failure to get any parts has led her Uncle Jim to hire her to help out in his Private Investigator practice. Not that she’s very good at that either, yet The trouble is he’s disappeared and she needs to find him and to earn money. Her attempts to interest the police in looking for him fall flat.

We start, though, with the murder of a smalltime Glasgow gangster, Jai McDiarmid but the connection between this and what turns out to be the main plot is somewhat tenuous. Detective Superintendent Catherine McLeod is put on his case, allowing Brookmyre to highlight the denizens of the Glasgow outwith-the-law fraternity. McLeod has the obligatory plagued personal life of the detective novel protagonist though her troubles are of a low-key variety.
A file on Uncle Jim’s desk reveals he was looking into a decades old disappearance of parents and a child on behalf of the left behind daughter. Jasmine’s efforts to follow this up lead her to hardman Tron Ingrams, once known as Glen Fallan, who has been thought dead for twenty years.

The lead characters are not as interesting as those in Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane and Angelique de Xavia novels. Or, are they just more perfunctorily drawn? Moreover the prose rarely if ever rises above the functional. Where the Bodies Are Buried feels like crime writing by the numbers.

“He who controls the spice controls the universe” which Brookmyre characterises as an eighties movie reference does however show his affinity with Science Fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- “there are a select few semiologists” (strictly, there is a select few,) “… person to be sat in front of me” (seated, or, sitting,) Collins’ (Collins’s,) growed-up (surely even hard-boiled Glaswegians say ‘grown-up’,) Cairns’ (Cairns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Ingrams’ (Ingrams’s,) “coming off of” (I know it’s Glaswegian dialect but this was in ‘normal’ prose; coming off, no ‘of’,) middle-age spread (it’s usually middle-aged spread,) “oblivious of the tension” (it’s ‘oblivious to’.) Central station (it’s a proper noun, Central Station,) Motley Crue (I believe that band spells its name with erroneous umlauts, Mötley Crüe.)

The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2006, 375 p.

 The Bullet Trick cover

The novel is set variously in Glasgow, London and Berlin and intercuts between the three at intervals. It starts with William Wilson, mentalist and illusionist, having fled back to Glasgow to hide after a sojourn as a conjuror in the Berlin night club Schall und Rauch has gone wrong. He had only taken that job after a one-off gig at a London venue – a benefit for a retired policeman, Jim Montgomery, nicknamed ‘the Wizard,’ – was followed by the violent deaths of the club’s proprietor Bill and his boyfriend Sam, whose knowledge of Wilson had got him the gig. Bill had prevailed on Wilson to use his palming skills to remove a package he said belonged to him from the detective’s jacket pocket. Montgomery wants it back – even tracking him down to Berlin. Wilson’s need to return to Glasgow depends on his awareness of this and of the possible dangers of the conjuror’s bullet trick of the title. Only once back in Glasgow does Wilson open the package to see what it contains.

This is where the whole enterprise falls into what I might call the standard thriller plot. A single untrained individual besting the world and solving a decades old mystery don’t ever strike me as very likely. Welsh’s gifts as a novelist are many, a feel for character and an eye for description among them. She does this sort of plot well enough but somehow or other the reader (well, me) always suspects that Wilson’s situation isn’t going to turn out to be as black as he paints it.

There is a reminder of the buttoned-up attitudes inculcated into Scots by centuries of Calvinism when Wilson says of an old friend that he, “pulled me into a hug that was traitor to his west coast of Scotland origins.”

The cover of the edition I read is emblazoned with a quote from Kate Atkinson, “Her most thrilling yet.” I was not quite so enthralled, maybe because of the conjuring business. If a faker is telling you something then you must expect fakery. Of the four Welsh novels I have read so far the best has been Tamburlaine Must Die, perhaps due to its historical setting.

Pedant’s corner:- conjurer (I prefer the spelling conjuror,) Saturday Night at the London Palladium (that Palladium TV show was on Sunday nights,) “her bosoms” (a person traditionally only has one of those,) “there were nothing but shadows” (there was nothing,) junky (junkie,) “licensed grocers” (grocer’s.) “The crowd were clapping” (the crowd was clapping,) “the audience were getting used to” (the audience was getting used to.) “He’s doing his standard grades now” (it is – was – a proper noun, Standard Grades,) “over an over” (over and over,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) a missing end quotation mark. “‘You could of found me’” (You could have found me. This was in dialogue but the speaker was German and I suspect would not be so ungrammatical when speaking English.)

The Bone Yard by Paul Johnston

NEL, 2003, 316 p. First published 1998.

 The Bone Yard cover

Being the renewed adventures of Quintilian Dalrymple (after Body Politic) in an independent Edinburgh in 2020 where the inhabitants lead circumscribed lives ruled over by a Council and guardians while tourists to the year-round Festival are afforded every luxury.

Two people are found with their throats bitten out, tongues and genitals removed, and a cassette lodged in the wounds, in each case with a blues song (the Blues are banned in this Edinburgh) on the tape. When the first body is found Dalrymple is assigned the case due to his success in solving earlier murders. The usual conflicts with his nominal overseers ensue. Along the way we find out what the mysterious Bone Yard is, plus its connection to both the mothballed Torness Nuclear Power Station and pills dubbed Electric Blues – which are potentially fatal to those with weak hearts. We, Dalrymple, and his sidekick Davie, also make re-acquaintance with Quint’s love interest from Body Politic, Katharine Kirkwood. Her experiences outside Edinburgh in the interim, as recounted to Quint, have been grim (and a touch gratuitous) but provide a link to the killer.

The voice in which Johnston describes Quint and his attitudes is of the usual couldn’t-give-a-toss, rule-bending, I’ll-go-where-the-leads-take-me, would-be irreverent maverick type. While it seemed bright and almost fresh in Body Politic, here the similes and metaphors are either strained or overcooked.

Johnston has certainly hit on an unusual situation in which to set a crime novel. The speculative aspects are only trappings though. This is first and foremost a crime novel. A good enough one at that. But he’s since written five more Dalrymple books (plus eleven others.) This one didn’t much encourage me to look out the rest.

Pedant’s corner:- “the temperature swapped a minus for a plus reading” (the temperature went down, so a plus was swapped for a minus,) “didn’t use to turn up” (didn’t used to.) “Tonight was the only night of the year when the curfew isn’t enforced.” (conflict of tenses; wasn’t enforced is more natural,) had a accident (an accident,) bunsen burner (Bunsen burner,) e-string (E-string surely?) span (spun,) “a clear liquid” (colourless I think,) ouside (outside.) “Even though the numbers of Moslem tourists has fallen” (either ‘number of’ or else ‘have fallen’,) the Forth Rail Bridge (aka the Forth Bridge: since it’s the original only any others need a qualifying description,) a missing re-opening quote mark when a piece of dialogue resumed. Asshole, ass and smartass (this is Edinburgh; even there they put the “r” in. Arsehole, arse and smartarse,) “didn’t use to be like this” (used to be.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Headline Review, 2006, 213 p One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Hound of the Baskervilles cover

This takes the usual form of the Sherlock Holmes story. A client comes to Baker Street to enlist Holmes’s help in unravelling a mystery, in this case a Dr Mortimer, friend of the late Sir Charles of that ilk, who relates the legend of the hound of the title, said to be the curse of the Baskervilles and apparently responsible for Sir Charles’s death and seeking Holmes’s protection for the heir, Henry, about to arrive in the country from overseas. After some preliminary shenanigans in London our narrator Dr Watson is packed off to the Devonshire countryside to seek information and act as a kind of bodyguard while Holmes does his thing, supposedly on other cases but in reality following his own path to the answer. Throw in a few red herrings like the light on the moor at night, disguises of various sorts, people who are not who they pretend to be, and the mix is complete.

The attractions of the form are readily apparent. The book is easy to read, comforting (Holmes rarely fails to set the world to rights,) as well as formulaic. It is not, though, literature of the highest quality. The prose never rises above the workmanlike, the characters are little more than stereotypes and it surely appears on that “100 best” list only because Holmes has become so familiar as a cultural reference point.

The piece of dialogue, “‘Interesting, though elementary,’ said he,” incidentally shows that Doyle did put that word into Holmes’s mouth (though without appending to it, “my dear Watson.”) It also illustrates Doyle’s irritating use of “said he” rather than “he said.”

Pedant’s corner:- “If he would, confine his energies to this all would be well” (surely has an extraneous comma,) rosterer (roisterer is the best fit.)

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