The Special Dead – Lin Anderson @BloodyScotland Build-Up

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BLURB: When Mark Howitt is invited back to Leila’s flat and ordered to strip, he thinks he’s about to have the experience of his life. Waking later he finds Leila gone from his side. Keen to leave, he opens the wrong door and finds he’s entered a nightmare; behind the swaying Barbie dolls that hang from the ceiling is the body of the girl he just had sex with. Rhona Macleod’s forensic investigation of the scene reveals the red plaited silk cord used to hang Leila to be a cingulum, a Wiccan artifact used in sex magick. Sketches of sexual partners hidden in the dolls provide a link to nine powerful men, but who are they? As the investigation continues, it looks increasingly likely that other witches will be targeted too. Working the investigation is the newly demoted DS Michael McNab, who is keen to stay sober and redeem himself with Rhona, but an encounter with Leila’s colleague and fellow Wiccan Freya Devine threatens his resolve. Soon McNab realizes Freya may hold the key to identifying the men linked to the dolls, and the Nine will do anything to keep their identities a secret.

First of all, the subject matter of this novel absolutely fascinated me – I must confess I have little truck with things that can’t be proven by science. Mr C has a current obsession with all these ghost hunter programmes, which I think are bunkum. I’m with Edith Wharton – I’ve never seen a ghost but I’m frightened of them! Add to that list astrology, fortune tellers, mediums, angels, etc. You get the picture. I’m a cynic. But Wicca isn’t used to cast any bizarre spells – unless it’s in the hands of Leila, our victim, who we don’t meet for very long as she’s been hanged with a cingulum – in a room filled with 27 Barbie dolls, arranged in a 9 x 9 grid according to hair colour.

This is the tenth Lin Anderson book, and in this one, after the events of the previous book (which I SO must read!), things are slightly awkward with DS Michael MacNab and Dr Rhona MacLeod, due to this secret that’s festering between them (I don’t want to spoiler any of the series as I suspect you may want to read the ones you haven’t – in order, preferably! 😉 as I tell you more about this one!)

Leila was dabbling in the controversial (and allegedly powerful) branch of Wicca called “sex magick” (sounded a bit Aleister Crowley to me – simply a way of seducing beautiful women into sleeping with him, with the help of some drink and drugs.) But secreted inside each creepy, clacking doll they find a crudely drawn naked caricature, illustrated with tattoos, scars, and jewellery. They’re presumed to be pictures of men with whom Leila had slept, as each paper is marked with a smear of sperm of the man. It’s useful forensically, but only once you have a subject to test – unless of course the person is already in the system. Is it as simple as it looks – did Mark Howitt kill her in an alcoholic blackout? Or is there more to it? Was his choice as Leila’s partner for the evening as random as it appeared?

As ever, DS MacNab is the most effective investigator and undoubted star, but there are plenty of examples of teamwork and investigative detail which, combined with Rhona’s forensics, make for an exciting, detailed and compelling tale. However, he’s still nursing a bit of a broken heart over Rhona. This causes him to become far too involved with Freya, one of Leila’s friends who’s been a useful witness. Rhona, our forensic investigator, is now seeing Sean, an Irish musician who owns (and plays in) his own jazz bar in upmarket Ashton Lane (I rather liked the dynamic between them. And I do know I should really root for MacNab…) Also working alongside them, at Rhona’s initial suggestion, is Professor Magnus Pirie, who is a forensic psychologist with excellent knowledge of witchcraft.

However, Leila’s friends are now in danger from the killer, including Freya. Leila’s brother, Danny, also refuses to come in and talk to them – but is he a suspect, or a scared would-be victim? And who are these nine powerful men? Are they so well-connected they could actually persuade someone in police custody the best thing they can do is commit suicide? And if they can, will these men ever be brought to justice – or are they so well-connected a trial would be in jeopardy?

If Paths Of The Dead, the previous book, which is one of the six nominated for Deanstons Bloody Scotland Crime Book Of The Year, is anything like that this one, I’m: a) dying to read it (and any others I may have missed out on); and b) not in the least surprised it was nominated. I admit I initially assumed this one was the nominee, so skilfully does Lin manipulate us through the 434 pages with nary a lull. Obviously it was helped by the fact I found all the Wicca detail fascinating – of which there is a perfect amount; she’s researched this exceptionally well, and we’re never bogged down or bored. I found it fascinating, to my surprise.

This one’s definitely worth a read, so add it to your TBR lists now. There’s a great dramatic climax, and some excellent misdirection, although the eagle-eyed among you may spot one of the nine. Lin Anderson’s come a long way since I bought Driftnet – do yourself a favour and if you haven’t already done so, you do the investigating, and seek out Dr Rhona MacLeod and DS Michael MacNab.

This copy was provided by the publisher MacMillan, in exchange for an unbiased review.

What A Lovely Way To Burn – Louise Welsh @BloodyScotland Build-Up

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BLURB: It doesn’t look like murder in a city full of death. A pandemic called ‘The Sweats’ is sweeping the globe. London is a city in crisis. Hospitals begin to fill with the dead and dying, but Stevie Flint is convinced that the sudden death of her boyfriend Dr Simon Sharkey was not from natural causes. As roads out of London become gridlocked with people fleeing infection, Stevie’s search for Simon’s killers takes her in the opposite direction, into the depths of the dying city and a race with death. A Lovely Way to Burn is the first outbreak in the Plague Times trilogy. Chilling, tense and completely compelling, it’s Louise Welsh writing at the height of her powers.

This was one of the eighteen books longlisted for this year’s Theakstons’s Best Crime Novel (Sarah Hilary deservedly won with her debut, Someone Else’s Skin) It’s follow-up, Death Is A Welcome Guest, is one of the six books on the Bloody Scotland Best Scottish Crime Novel shortlist, with the winner to be announced at the festival.

Louise Welsh has a big new publishing contract with Hodder & Stoughton – and boy does it show. This book’s the first of three in the Plague Times Trilogy. Having read all of Louise’s books, bar her most recent, The Girl On The Stairs, two things surprised me about this book: a) that it’s so commercial (that’s not a criticism, bear with me); and b) how action-packed it is – there’s no end of fights, guns being pulled on people, dead bodies – you get the picture. Our heroine is Stevie Flint, a one-time journalist, now working the dead shift on a shopping channel with her best pal, Joanie. Louise Welsh must’ve done her research(!) re shopping channels, as the wittering they do to fill the time and sell the products sounded incredibly realistic and witty.

“They were playing what Stevie thought of as their retro-porno-roles: Joanie the experienced but well-preserved housewife, initiating Stevie (newly married, not sure how to keep both her man and her sanity) into the ways of the world.”

All this to sell toasters at six am!

Basically, in the first book (I’m reading the second shortly) we’re in present-day London, and people are coming down in increasing numbers all over the world with something they call “the Sweats”. It appears everyone who has caught it up until now has died – bar Stevie, who locked herself away from everyone as soon as she was feeling bad. As a result of this, milder, infection, she’s immune, which is unheard of. Stevie had good reason to lock herself away – she’d gone to see her boyfriend, Simon, a doctor, after he stood her up, with the intention of collecting all her things from his flat and calling it a day. However, she finds Simon dead – and he didn’t die of the Sweats. He was murdered, by someone looking for something, which he fails to find, although Stevie does: a briefcase. He knew she’d find it, and left a (very sweet!) message saying Stevie is the only person he can rely on to deliver it to the one colleague he now trusts in medicine.

When she gets to the hospital, she’s told the colleague she wants to see is dead, but another gentleman will take the briefcase she’s brought from Simon’s, Dr Ahumibe, as he was also involved in the research project. He’s very plausible, but Stevie remembers how insistent Simon was – it was only to go to Reah. She politely demurs, remembering Simon’s scrawled postscript, “Trust no one except Reah.”

With the aid of Joanie’s ex, a policeman, she’s sent in the right direction in order to get the contents of the briefcase explained. Her meeting with Iqbal, as well as other characters, who reveal there was a bit more to her about her late boyfriend than she’d known are revelations which keep us turning the pages – we want to know the truth, just like Stevie.

The scenes where Stevie is driving around London – which could be any big city – are among the best in the book. Some people are doing their best to carry on; others have just given up. Many are dead. The streets aren’t safe anymore – and it’s not just the Sweats that’s the problem. As civil society starts to break down, robberies and other general desperate lawlessness start to spread across the city. Stevie has the added problem of the creepy doctors searching for her in order to get the briefcase. They also want some of the antibody that’s in her blood – presumably not for altruistic purposes, but to save their own skins, and try to make a fortune into the bargain!

I loved Stevie – she was ballsy, determined, and took no crap. She was determined to finish the task Simon set for her, when she could easily have headed out of London and away from the danger posed by Simon’s colleagues and the desperate population. Instead, she chose to stay and fight, very often literally (which is what crimeworm would do. Obviously.)

It is on the chunky side, compared to many crime novels, but is one to keep you reading far longer than you’d intended, and it flies by, particularly the final scenes. Just what is in the briefcase that a man would murder for? What are the Sweats, and what caused them? I don’t know if Stevie returns in book two – I hope so, but somehow doubt it ( just because I’ve read the blurb and she isn’t mentioned. Maybe she’ll do a cameo…) I also suspect it’ll be book three before we discover the origin of the Sweats, if, of course, we do. As one doctor says to Stevie, early in the book, In the fourteenth century sixty per cent of Europe’s population died from plague. It’s a myth that it was all down to rats. The truth is, we still don’t really know what it was.” “This isn’t anything like that though, is it?…”It’s impossible to know.” The origin of the disease is not really the issue though – like most dystopian books, it’s more about the breakdown of civilization and how the characters survive – or perish – in this unfamiliar new world.

Highly recommended.

Own copy.