A fe­male dou­ble act and a killer book­seller

Shirley White­side re­views two grip­ping Scot­tish crime nov­els

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Claire MacLeary Con­tra­band, £8.99 Rus­sel D McLean Con­tra­band, £8.99

TWO mid­dle-aged women may not seem the ideal pro­tag­o­nists for a crime novel but in Claire MacLeary’s de­but they of­fer a re­fresh­ingly dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor genre. The set­ting is re­spectable sub­ur­ban Aberdeen and the city’s dank hous­ing es­tates with their drug deal­ers and feral chil­dren.

MacLeary’s dou­ble act are not ex­actly Cag­ney and Lacey but that is what makes them so in­ter­est­ing. Maggie Laird is the prim widow of a dis­graced po­lice of­fi­cer who eked out a liv­ing as a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor when he was flung out of the po­lice for cor­rup­tion.

Her next door neigh­bour, Wilma, is brash and gaudy but she has the street smarts that Maggie lacks. When Maggie dis­cov­ers she has been left with debts that her part-time job will not cover, Wilma en­cour­ages her to take over her late hus­band’s clients.

Maggie agrees but with two con­di­tions. Firstly, Wilma be­comes her part­ner, and se­condly that they set out to clear her hus­band’s name. This odd cou­ple rub along, knock­ing the edges off each other and dis­cov­er­ing as much about them­selves as each other. Maggie be­gins to let her guard down while Wilma shows that she is far more ca­pa­ble than either of them could have imag­ined. Mur­der, drug deal­ing, vi­cious gangs and dodgy po­lice­men: the women take them all on in their own fash­ion.

MacLeary has cre­ated a fast-paced tale with enough sub-plots to sus­tain the reader’s in­ter­est from first to last. Maggie, with her skelly eye, and Wilma with her spray painted leg­gings, make a for­mi­da­ble duo and there is plenty of scope for MacLeary to con­tinue the adventures of the Aber­do­nian quines.

Rus­sel D McLean’s sev­enth novel is set in Glas­gow and fea­tures Jen Carter, a failed writer who has be­come a book­seller. McLean knows plenty about Jen’s job, be­ing a for­mer book­seller him­self be­fore turn­ing to writ­ing full time.

Ed, Jen’s boyfriend, is not the re­li­able type and has some du­bi­ous con­nec­tions with Glas­gow ‘busi­ness­men’. One night Jen ac­ci­den­tally kills Ed and in­stead of call­ing the po­lice and ex­plain­ing, she de­cides to dis­pose of Ed’s body. She calls Dave, Ed’s stoner flat­mate, and they get rid of the body. They split Ed’s loot; Jen takes his stash of cash while Dave takes cus­tody of the drugs.

At first it seems as if they have man­aged to get away with it but the money and the drugs didn’t ac­tu­ally be­long to Ed and their right­ful owner wants them back. Jen finds her­self be­ing chased by a hit­man, gang­sters, jour­nal­ists, and crooked po­lice­men. As the bod­ies pile up the tabloid press name her The Most Dan­ger­ous Woman in Scot­land.

THERE is a lot of vi­o­lence in this novel, and some of it is bru­tal, but McLean pro­vides enough char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and pitch black hu­mour to stop it slid­ing into a kill-fest. Solomon Buchan, who rules the city by in­still­ing fear in his em­ploy­ees and vic­tims alike, prom­ises bloody vengeance on any­one who crosses him.

Michael, a cor­rupt cop, is liv­ing too close to the edge and mak­ing too many mis­takes for Buchan’s lik­ing. Dave, Ed’s sup­posed friend, shows an un­likely en­tre­pre­neur­ial streak that only serves to plunge him fur­ther into trou­ble.

The most in­trigu­ing char­ac­ter is Jen Carter, who starts off liv­ing a nor­mal, an­o­dyne life with a charm­ing but dodgy boyfriend, her dreams be­ing pushed on to the back burner as she sells books in­stead of writ­ing them.

Her instinct to call Dave rather than the po­lice when she kills Ed seems odd, as is her agree­ment to go along with his rather gory plan.

She lies and cheats like a pro and stands up to Buchan when no one else will. Death fol­lows her around like a bad smell but she never seems bro­ken by her losses.

Is she really an in­no­cent caught up in other peo­ple’s deadly games or does she have hidden depths?

It is this di­chotomy that makes her so fas­ci­nat­ing. McLean has left the door open for Jen to re­turn for an­other duel with the bad guys.

Con­tra­band, an im­print of Sara­band Books ded­i­cated to crime and thriller nov­els, has al­ready had ma­jor suc­cess with Graeme Macrae Bur­net’s His Bloody Project.

These nov­els will en­hance their rep­u­ta­tion for pub­lish­ing grip­ping Scot­tish crime nov­els.

Claire MacLeary’s de­but is set in Aberdeen with two fe­male friends fight­ing cor­rup­tion

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