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By Brian Toal

Dead Man’s Grave by Neil Lancaster

Longlisted for the 2021 McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Book of the Year, Lancaster provides a highly entertaining, fast-paced crime thriller set in the heart of Scotland. Max Craigie is ex-military, scarred by Helmand province and recently separated from his wife. He returns to Scotland having served in the Met for years, battle-hardened, weary and looking for a change. A change is what he gets, but not a change for the better.

The story starts in a small village in Caithness at a grave marked ‘This Grave Never To Be Opened’, which was often used for victims of the plague. However, this is the beginning of a complex vendetta going back more than a hundred years involving one of the largest criminal families in Scotland. The head of the family dies in mysterious circumstances and his three sons inevitably want revenge. This revenge must be swift and brutal to send a clear message to rival families that the Hardies should not be underestimated. One by one the family members of the rival family turn up dead until Craigie and his partner arrive in the nick of time. Craigie himself then becomes the target of the Hardie family, and it becomes clearer by the minute that they are getting help from inside Police Scotland at the highest levels. There is covert surveillance aplenty, with phones hacked, vehicles tagged and houses bugged. What do the Hardies have on these cops to keep them in their pockets? What chance does one crusading cop have against a powerful crime family aided and abetted by the police themselves?

The two storylines of police corruption and the hunt for the murderous members of a crime family co-exist and eventually merge, as is the case with many procedural crime novels. Being able to guess some of the plot is half the fun and the reason why crime novels are so popular. If you liked ‘Line of Duty’, you’ll like this, as it has all the twists and turns of a traditional crime novel, coupled with the intrigues and secrecy at the heart of a corrupt police force. Who are the good guys? Is the concept of good guys and bad guys too facile in 21st century policing? Max Craigie doesn’t think so. With unrelenting courage and derring-do, he confronts the criminals wearing black hats and white in his quest for justice.

Lancaster is the author of the digital bestselling Tom Novak series, which I’ll now check out. He also appears on Sky Crime TV as a key expert, so you may have come across him. I thoroughly enjoyed this and was pleased to learn that the next Max Craigie adventure is well under way.

The Girl, The Crow, The Writer and The Fighter by George Paterson

George Paterson’s debut novel is quite a feat, spanning continents and lifetimes, told mostly through the discovery of letters which reveal the hidden histories of Henry Miller, that controversial American novelist, and Sonny Liston, boxing champion, gambler and associate of gangsters. How these two fascinating characters become entwined is entirely fictional, but entirely believable in Paterson’s rollicking journey searching for a sacred artefact hidden for centuries by a secret society. At times the novel has a touch of the Dan Brown about it, insofar as the pages turn quickly and the plot becomes ever more complex. The characters of Liston and Miller and reimagined perfectly and realistically, and Paterson infuses the fictional characters with well documented events from the lives of these interesting men.

I really enjoyed the character of May, the young woman bequeathed the letters which reveal the story of Miller and Liston. However, this epistolary style of retelling events does not render May a merely passive character. Instead, as the recipient of this crucial information, she herself is thrust into danger and this modern-day action serves as a counterpoint to the Miller / Liston plot. The writer has a shaky grasp of apostrophes, commas and colons, but the plot is so compelling that this stops bothering you after a while, unless you’re an English teacher! As debut Scottish novels go, this is an impressive act of ventriloquism. It could be one of the best American novels to come out of Scotland for a long time.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘The Underground Railroad’, as well as ‘The Nickel Boys’, which I reviewed last year. I love his style of writing as you very quickly enter the world he has created through the authentic voices he gives his myriad characters. In his latest novel the setting is Harlem in the 1960s, a predominantly black area of a deeply segregated and unequal New York. The main character, Ray Carney, is a furniture salesman who also dabbles in moving other used goods for a price. He is desperate to escape his father’s legacy and provide the life his wife and kids deserve, but it seems as though fate and family constantly conspire against his best laid plans. As the novel progresses, Carney’s character arc is interesting to observe as one decision leads to another which leads to another, and before you know it, he’s knee deep in intrigue and crime, in a similar way to the Walter White character in ‘Breaking Bad’.

The backdrop to this very personal, family storyline is the race riots, white police violence against black protesters and the general black population, the millions of dollars made by huge construction firms building skyscrapers in the gaps left by newly demolished black neighbourhoods, the corruption of the local politicians, and the complicity of the police. The denouement is tense and thrilling, and Whitehead’s writing is masterful. Time magazine have labelled him ‘one of the greatest American writers alive.’ I’d ditch the word ‘American’.

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