There are many things about this novel, the first of Chris Brookmyre’s that I’ve read, that I admire. The novel is set in Scotland and the author successfully conveys that country’s rawness and beauty without descending into shortbread and Bannockburn lyricism. The plot is brilliantly crafted, with believable twists and turns until the very last sentence; it explores the dynamics of relationships on several different levels; and one of the protagonists, a private investigator named Jasmine Sharp, who inherits her uncle’s private investigation agency, Sharp Investigations, is only twenty-one years old, which makes her unique amongst the fiction detectives of my experience. She’s also an actress manqué, which helps her considerably in her adoption of a career that she has literally fallen into by accident. In When the devil drives, Jasmine’s pursuit of a long-disappeared missing person collides with the investigation of a present-day crime being conducted by Catherine Macleod, a senior police officer. Parallels and contrasts are drawn between the two women in both their professional and personal lives.
Jasmine’s relationship with Fallan, the man who confesses to having killed her father, is the most compelling of the many relationships that Brookmyre portrays. Fallan is an enigmatic character; still barely operating on this side of the law (in at least one instance he commits a criminal act, though there is the underlying suggestion that this is morally justified), he is an ex-con who, by his own admission, owes Jasmine an unpayable debt. She should shun and despise him, but she becomes ever more fascinated with him, while it becomes even clearer that she needs his help. To the end of the novel, however, his true character and, the reader suspects, his true relationship to her remain ambiguous. (When the devil drives contains an extract from Brookmyre’s next novel, Flesh Wounds, and I therefore know that Fallan features in it. I shall be happy to buy Flesh Wounds just to find out more about him.)
Catherine has a similarly edgy but not hopelessly antagonistic relationship with her husband. More bohemian than she, he clearly thinks that she is over-protective towards their two sons – a natural result, we are encouraged to conclude, from what she sees and suffers daily as a policewoman. I have to confess that I find the portrayal of Catherine the weakest facet of this novel. Her assured public role – she is almost brutally terse in her treatment of colleagues – sits ill with the neurotic wife and mother that she becomes at home. However, the main problem with Catherine is that her character fails to engage the reader to the same degree that Jasmine’s does. Many crime writers develop two characters to act as foils to each other: Stephen Booth’s Fry and Cooper and Anya Lipski’s Kiszka and Kershaw spring immediately to mind – but their success lies in making each character as appealing as the other, despite their very obvious differences. By contrast, in When the devil drives, I found myself impatient to get back to Jasmine during the Catherine scenes.
This is a realtively minor blemish, however. I won’t say too much about the intricate plot of this novel, as I don’t want to spoil it – and I should like to encourage anyone who is reading this to get hold of a copy of the book. Brookmyre has an original style and I’m sure will write many more such successful and entertaining novels.
I think that I’ve read all of Stephen Booth’s novels except Already Dead, the latest. (It’s difficult to keep up!) I’ve just completed The Kill Call, its predecessor. Booth’s a writer I much admire, partly because I like the characters that he’s developed in the Cooper / Fry novels, partly because he describes so well the Pennine countryside in which the books are set. It’s not too far from where I live and I find his descriptions both evocative and accurate. And then there are his plots, which improve with every book.
The Kill Call particularly features Diane Fry, his troubled Detective Sergeant, though DC Ben Cooper still has a large role in this book. As in the previous novels, Fry is at odds with most of the people who populate her world and, as has also happened before, Cooper’s well-meaning attempts to help her rebound on him. In fact, I’d say that, if there is a (minor) blemish in this book, it’s that Cooper’s Good Samaritan acts occasionally tip over into soppiness, at least for this reader: Booth is clearly trying to point up Fry’s prickliness, but I don’t think that you’d need to be an outwardly tough, inwardly traumatised woman police officer to find Ben Cooper’s attentions as depicted in The Kill Call irritating, which is a pity, because Booth has got the taut relationship that exists between them exactly right in the previous novels in the series.
That is a small quibble, however. The Kill Call has a great deal to offer, not least its fascinating historical detail. Booth is particularly excellent on the history of the recent past. I hadn’t before come across accounts of the underground nuclear shelters created in the Peak District during the Cold War, but the detail that he writes about them is completely convincing. Booth compares this period of history with what happened in the plague district of Eyam, to great effect. However, the main plot focuses on the legality of hunting and shady dealings in the meat industry, both of course highly topical. The title cleverly refers to both. The first murder victim is a reprehensible man; Booth holds the reader’s interest and sympathy by developing the story of those closest to him. A web of lies, deceit and treachery unfolds; it is complex, but extremely well-handled and perfectly credible.
I won’t reveal any more, as I’ve probably disclosed quite enough already! I’d just like to conclude by saying that I think that Booth should recognise that he has taken the ill-starred, prone-to-misunderstanding, tense quasi-sexual relationship between Fry and Cooper as far as he can now without developing it further. One or the other or both should pluck up the courage to explore their feelings more clearly, or one or the other should move on. This may be what Booth has planned. But, as I’ve already explained, I have yet to read Already Dead, so if anyone reading this has beaten me to it, please don’t give me any clues!
I was a little dismayed when I studied the latest Public Lending Right [PLR] figures over the weekend. I’m a great supporter of Public Lending Right; I remember when it was first set up thirty years ago. Originally campaigned for by authors like Brigid Brophy and Antonia Fraser, and more recently Andrew Motion and Monica Ali, its purpose is to make payment (from a fund awarded by the government) to authors whose books are borrowed from public libraries. The Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society [ALCS] grew out of the original campaign. I met John Sumsion, its first director and the genius behind the system that computes how much each author should be paid, several times before his untimely death (he had previously worked in I.T. in the shoe industry) and am proud to be able to count its present director, Dr. Jim Parker, who has now been at the helm for twenty-five years, a good friend. He has not only worked tirelessly to support PLR in this country, but has also acted as its ambassador in many countries across the world. He is a published historian who has written brilliantly about the East India Company.
Back to this year’s figures, though. Unsurprisingly, crime novels feature prominently on the lists of books borrowed in 2011-2012. So far so good. I’m by no means a xenophobe when it comes to reading and appreciating the work of other authors, as my blog-posts will testify, yet I do find it a little disheartening to see that, of the twenty crime writers most-borrowed in British public libraries, American authors predominate and that only three British authors – MC Beaton, Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin – have made the top twenty at all. Yet more astonishing is that Ian Rankin, whose books account for 10% of all the crime novels sold in the UK (according to book-industry-produced statistics), ranks as only the twentieth most borrowed author.
Book trade research suggests that people who borrow books also buy books and therefore that libraries and booksellers are not in competition with each other, but have a symbiotic effect on each other’s activities. I wonder how the PLR figures fit in with this? Do people borrow books by authors different from the ones whose works they buy? Are the shelves of our public libraries more heavily stocked with books by American than by British authors and, if so, why? Or is it the case that people are so impatient to read the latest Ian Rankin, Stephen Booth or Peter Robinson that they don’t want to wait for it to become available in the library and so go out and buy it or order it online, at the same time taking out a James Patterson to tide them over? This last is the most optimistic explanation that I can think of, but I should love to undertake some proper research to substantiate my theory!