Scottish crime fiction

Saints of the Shadow Bible – Ian Rankin

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Saints of the Shadow Bible Ian RankinRebus is back in the police, demoted and a bit angry. While Rebus investigates a car accident, he learns that a case he and his mentors worked thirty years ago is about to be reopened. That investigation is led by none other than Malcolm Fox, and Rebus is caught between his sense of justice and loyalty to the men who helped him start his career in the police.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave was the first time Rebus and Fox, both Rankin creations in their own series, went head to head, but that stand off was just a teaser to the action in Saints of the Shadow Bible. While Rebus ostensibly is working with Malcolm, you as the reader are never sure if his loyalties lie with the truth or with his old comrades. While many Rebus books have let the famous Edinburgh cop toe the line, in Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rebus appears to have let his post-retirement demotion and treatment force him over once and for all. As a long-time reader of Rebus, even I was sitting on the edge of my seat, wondering what decision the veteran cop was going to make.

Rankin is in great shape in his most recent work, and it was great to see the contrast of Fox and Rebus when they were placed side by side.  I felt that Saints of the Shadow Bible was much stronger than Standing in Another Man’s Grave or Exit Music, putting Rebus back into some of his best form in years.  Rankin raises the tension, keeps the reader guessing in the two central mysteries, and showcases the growth of his characters over the years. Now if only Siobhan could be more settled and happy and less like Rebus in her personal life (I would also read a book centered solely on Rebus’s apprentice).

I am more excited to see where Rebus and Fox are heading, and hopefully we’ll get to see more of Fox finding his way in his new reality as well.  Rankin is taking this next year off, so no new books will be hitting our shelves until at least 2015, but I cannot wait for what’s next for Edinburgh’s craziest cops.

Rating: 8/10

Read Saints of the Shadow Bible (Inspector Rebus)

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Promoting Scottish Lit – New Bookspotting App

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It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of all kinds of Scottish Lit – from crime fiction to short stories and classics, I have spent years living here and reading a lot of Scottish lit in my free time.  So it’s no surprise that I am beyond excited for the new Bookspotting App from Publishing Scotland.  An app designed specifically to promote Scottish books and Scottish-interest books, Publishing Scotland makes it easy for avid readers to be introduced to great writers that they had maybe not discovered before.

One of my favorite aspects of the app is the geo-location feature.  By using the phone’s GPS or a post code, the app can tell you what Scottish books take place near you, giving a whole new meaning to reading local literature.  Because of the post code feature, the app can even be used by people outside of Scotland to help plan your own bookish tour of the country.

bookspotting geolocation app

When you pull up the app, it opens with a book of the day and a list of books published that day in previous years.

bookspotting top opening pagebookspotting open page

You can then navigate around to the tours section to find a great book-themed tour and operator around Scotland.

bookspotting tours

You can also take a fun quiz (in Scots!) and find out which character you are, search through the huge list of associated books by genre or alphabetically, and so much more.  If you really want to discover some great new books, use Bookspotting to get your to-read list growing.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

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The Cuckoo's Calling Robert Galbraith

I use Grammarly for English proofreading because they’re not going to win their fight over there.

Cormoran Strike is a military vet turned private detective who has had a recent string of bad luck – between crippling financial trouble and parting with his fiance, his world is in an emotional upheaval.  After a temporary secretary, Robin, bowls into his life and he is given the high profile case of solving the assumed-suicide of a young model, Strike’s life gets even more complicated.

I am ashamed to say that I had only heard of this book after it was leaked that J. K. Rowling wrote it.  Because she was so disappointed that the sales were going to skyrocket based on her name and not the novel’s own merit, I decided to give it some time before I read it.  Honestly though, this book or potential crime series would have taken off without her pseudonym being revealed.  Strike, like so many Harry Potter characters, is a well-drawn, three-dimensional protagonist who continuously draws you in and captures your attention.  Robin, who might have been a stereotypical secretary and assistant, steals the show as the mystery-solving assistant who just won’t leave Strike’s side.  She finds herself instantly drawn to the gruff man and to his chosen career, but she struggles internally with the expectations her new fiance has for her and her career prospects.

Perhaps what I loved most about The Cuckoo’s Calling was that while it contains so many of the same tropes you would expect in British crime fiction, Galbraith/Rowling manages to write it in her same magical way.  There is a quality to her writing that is nearly fantastical, even when she is talking about the mundane, that lifts the words right off the page.  While I am not sure she achieved this same quality in The Casual Vacancy (a book I gave a miss), she nails it in The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Her writing is simple and accessible, but the story never feels boring or tired.

The Cuckoo’s Calling moves at a rapid pace, keeping you plugged into the case and the strange relationships that filled up the dead model’s life.  While the central mystery is intriguing, the real magic of The Cuckoo’s Calling lies in the draw of Strike and Robin’s platonic friendship and chemistry, along with their individual lives.  While I have yet to hear of an announced sequel, I would gladly read more Cormoran Strike novels.

Ian Rankin’s 10 Writing Tips

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On Monday, Most Wanted publishing is announcing Ian Rankin’s newest book title and revealing the cover.  With a new maybe-Rebus on the way, I wanted to celebrate tonight with Ian Rankin’s 10 Writing Tips.  I love the bluntness of his advice, and that he recognizes there’s a lot of luck involved with getting published (look at how many publishers rejected J.K. Rowling after all). What do you think of the Scottish Crime King’s tips?

Ian Rankin Writing Tips

Image Text:

  1. Read lots.
  2. Write lots.
  3. Learn to be self-critical.
  4. Learn what criticism to accept.
  5. Be persistent.
  6. Don’t give up.
  7. Have a story worth telling.
  8. Know the market.
  9. Get lucky.
  10. Stay lucky.

Source: Guardian

The Blackhouse – Peter May

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The Blackhouse Peter MayEdinburgh-based detective Fin Macleod is reeling from personal tragedy when he is sent back to his childhood hometown of the Isle of Lewis.  There in his quiet town, he must help investigate a murder that is eerily similar to one he was investigating in Edinburgh several months before.  But Macleod has bad memories of his life on Lewis, and as the story moves, we learn just what Macleod was escaping when he left Lewis 18 years before.

The first in the Lewis Man trilogy, I was expecting great things from Peter May’s novel.  Unfortunately, the book only really came together in the last twenty or so pages, leaving me wondering just what he was trying to accomplish through most of the book.  While The Blackhouse looks and sounds like a crime novel, it really is more of a character-driven drama that just happens to center on a detective.  The bits that would fall more into the crime genre were cliché, almost carbon copies of things Ian Rankin and other Scottish crime authors have already done.  Rocked by personal tragedy? Check.  Bad marriage?  Check.  Hometown he wants to forget?  Check.  First novel includes a crime that is personal and vindictive against the detective?  Check.  Sound a bit like Knots and Crosses to you?  Except Fin Macleod is mostly a shallow, one-dimensional character that hardly grabs your attention or your sympathy, until that last portion of the book.

In fact, most of the characters in The Blackhouse felt contrived and as if they were cardboard cut-outs.  The only character with real dimension was the landscape of Lewis.  The long, florid descriptions provided you with a very detailed visual of what the treeless island looks like.  The only issue is that the book is not a travelogue, though so many passages are dedicated to the landscape that you might believe it is meant to be.  I found myself skipping over the landscape portions after the beginning of the book, as it only stalled the momentum of the novel.  While there are some authors who have a talent of making landscape come alive, May was not particularly adept at this task.

Another portion of the book that completely threw me was the narrative style.  While it opens in third-person and follows the present-day Fin on his journey back to his past, there is an inexplicable and unexplained shift into first person describing his childhood memories.  I am sure May was going for something artistic, but it reads more as someone who doesn’t know how to write or construct a novel.  I have never seen a book that presents emotional insight into a character in both third and first person, and it was so jarring that it distracted me for the rest of the novel.  These past insights were never explained – was it meant to be a journal?  Further thoughts from Fin?  It is never explained and never really makes sense.

In all, The Blackhouse had some great character insight that finally paid off in the final pages of the book, but failed to keep you involved until then.  The overall novel read like a first-time author and self-published on Kindle.  Except he’s not and it’s not.  Between the glaring stylistic missteps and the overdone story elements, The Blackhouse was a novel that fell far short of its potential.

Rating: 5/10

Buy The Blackhouse from Amazon.com

Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Ian Rankin

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Standing in Another Man’s Grave follows Ian Rankin’s now-retired DI Rebus, who has not given up his need to solve cases.  Working as a civilian with other retired cops in the Cold Case Unit, Rebus meets a woman who claims her daughter was the first victim in a string of murders along Scotland’s A9 motorway.  Rebus, ever a man who loves a damsel in distress, decides to look into the case.  In so doing, he begins to uncover some interesting facts about the current disappearance of a young girl.  He throws himself back in with Siobhan Clarke, and worms his way onto the active investigation.  Wary of Rebus’s presence is another Rankin protagonist, Inspector Malcolm Fox of the Complaints.  Fox cannot believe Rebus is a clean cop, and when Rebus thinks about signing on to active duty, Fox thinks it’s his duty to find all the dirt of Rebus and his strange relationship with mobster Big Ger.

When Standing in Another Man’s Grave was announced, I was excited about the prospect of Fox and Rebus going toe to toe.  There are plenty of our favorite authors who have multiple beloved characters, and wouldn’t we all like to watch these characters meet?  By the earlier released log line, I assumed this was a book from Fox, and that Rebus would be a minor figure.  Paint me astonished, because upon reading it the book was much the other way around.  The majority of the narrative follows Rebus on the case, and we only get a small glimpse into what Fox thinks of this rather old-fashioned cop.  And that glimpse is rather scathing.

Rankin explains in the afterword that he had never really been done with Rebus, but the required retirement age in Scotland had painted him into a corner with Rebus’s employment.  Because John Rebus would never become a private detective nor would he be able to find crimes to solve while not on active duty, Rebus was retired.  But then Rankin heard about the Cold Case Unit employing retired cops, and even better, the age restriction being raised.  Suddenly, Rebus could come back and back he came.

I was mostly happy with the return of Rebus.  He got up to his old tricks, but painted against the backdrop of Siobhan’s career choices and Fox’s opinions, it was hard not to feel that Rebus was a bit out of place in modern crime solving.  Which is what I think Rankin wanted to do, but, not giving anything away, the ending really cemented that maybe Rebus has gone too far to prove he is still relevant and can deliver results.  Going forward with any new Rebus, it would be interesting to see if Rankin would tame him a bit, allow him to adjust to the newer way of doing things.  Otherwise, the reality of Rebus staying in the force would seem a bit stretched, and Rankin has been fairly fastidious about being realistic.

As for the meeting of the minds, it was rather intriguing to see Fox set against the backdrop of Rebus.  Having read both The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, Fox is a character I thought I knew quite well.  When things are told from his side of the story, you automatically assume guilt on the part of the cops, and you know why Fox goes after them so hard.  But when Fox comes after Rebus, and you know Rebus is innocent, it puts a whole new spin on the view of a narrator.  After all, from Fox’s perspective, this is a retired cop interested in rejoining the ranks who still works for the police department, has biweekly nights out with former mobster Big Ger Cafferty, and by all accounts, saved Cafferty’s life.  But we know that Rebus hates Cafferty and that his motives are pure, even if his methods aren’t.  Standing in Another Man’s Grave brings these two protagonists against each other and says a lot more about the respective characters when the reader thought they knew enough already.

As a crime novel, I found Rankin’s newest offering to be mostly on par with his previous works.  My only real complaint was the end of the book, and the issue was that Rebus was so strong-handed that I felt it cheapened and lessened the criminal’s confession.  However, having another Rebus and seeing that there is still a lot more to his story makes my day, and I will continue to read any new offerings.  (It gave me chills to see “Rebus is Back” right there on the cover.)

Rating: 7.5/10

Gods & Beasts – Denise Mina

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Gods and Beasts is the third novel featuring DS Alex Morrow and follows her investigation into a pre-Christmas post office shooting and robbery.  While she tries to unravel the mystery, Alex just wants to be home with her new twin boys and husband.  Woven in is the mysterious young man who cared for a boy while his grandfather was shot, increasing amounts of police bribery, and a corrupt MP fighting scandalous allegations.

Mina is known for her deep, psychological crime fiction, and I expected Gods and Beasts to be on par or better than End of the Wasp Season.  I am afraid this newest installment fell a little short of its predecessor.  It is several pages before we even see Alex Morrow, our protagonist, and the lack of focus on her makes the book feel very full.  There are countless characters all involved in various schemes, and even I had a hard time remembering which names fit into which story.  The entire MP storyline could have been lifted from the book without a lot of bother.  It only sheds light on the major ending twist; a twist that could have been delivered another way easily.  Instead, Mina’s desire to delve into the political feels misplaced and could have been more powerful in another novel.

One thing that worked very well in Gods and Beasts was Morrow’s new motherhood.  Mina is one of the few crime authors I’ve read that has had her main character be personally successful.  In fact, during Bloody Scotland, Mina mentioned that she wanted “to write a cop who is very happy at home, just to be outrageous.”  Morrow’s desire to be at home, her appreciation for her “second-chance at motherhood”, and her desire to push forward in her life were quite refreshing.  She even admits her familial connection with half-brother mobster Danny to her bosses, just to prove she isn’t ashamed of who she is.  I loved that about her, the strength it must have taken.  DS Alex Morrow has shown one of the better character progressions in Scottish crime fiction, and Mina shows great restraint in not mucking it up for drama.

Gods and Beasts is still a fantastic read, even if it did have a high standard to live up to with End of the Wasp Season.  While it lacks the same depth in its criminals that we have gotten more often from Mina, she does bring a new twist to a genre that constantly redefines itself in Scotland.  Now if we could just have gotten rid of Kenny Gallagher MP, the story would be tight.

Rating: 7/10