THE chatter around Chris Brookmyre’s last novel, Where the Bodies are Buried, was that it was a change in direction for the Scottish crime novelist – ditching extremes of gore and satire for a more conventional and mainstream approach, couched in the form of a police procedural.
The truth was that there was no great change of style; he may have reined in a few writerly excesses but there’s still a recognisable Brookmyre sparkle and wit on show, as is ably demonstrated by When the Devil Drives, his second novel to feature the two series characters he launched last time round.
The narrative of the novel is split between Jasmine Sharp, a young theatre-school dropout turned private detective, and Detective Superintendent Catherine McLeod, with Sharp getting the lion’s share of page time. Both women are excellent creations – complex, realistic characters full of everyday flaws and woes, and the reader can’t help but feel empathy for both of them.
This time around Sharp is asked to investigate a missing person case by an elderly woman searching for her long-lost sister. Initially it seems a simple enough job, and Brookmyre paints the workmanlike nature of private investigating with veracity and insight.
But as Sharp digs deeper into the case, she inevitably opens up a real can of worms. The missing woman in question is Tessa Garrion, who was a talented and aspiring actress when she was last heard of 30 years ago. Sharp’s investigations take her back into the world of Glasgow’s burgeoning theatre scene of the early 1980, and many of the people who knew Garrion are now high up in the echelons of the Scottish arts scene.
Brookmyre has fun with this stuff, gently ridiculing the Scottish arts and media worlds, as well as having a dig at the posher end of society; his skills for social observation and commentary are as honed as they’ve ever been.
While Sharp goes about her investigation, McLeod has to deal with the apparent murder of a high-ranking figure in the arts world – no prizes for guessing that the two stories are linked, but Brookmyre has learned a thing or two about plotting over the course of 15 novels, and he’s adept at red herrings, sleights of hand and subterfuge, leaving the reader guessing until the end.
Given that this is a story based around the world of theatre, it’s safe to say it’s not quite up there in terms of grittiness and nastiness as some of Brookmyre’s previous work, but what it lacks in brutality it more than makes up for in deviousness and strange psychology. One of the smarter elements is an intriguing subplot that sees McLeod arguing with her husband about the suitability for their young sons of a certain shoot-’em-up video game. This initially seems like just a nice bit of background, until Brookmyre brings it cleverly into play later. Indeed, this is one of the strengths of Brookmyre’s writing, the seemingly aimless threads which get tangled up into the main narrative in a way that is both believable and satisfying.
But for all that McLeod is a great character, When the Devil Drives is Sharp’s story to tell, and if I have one quibble with the novel it’s that at times the balance between the two narratives seems a little lopsided. Sharp is always three steps ahead of McLeod, perhaps a necessary upshot of the way Brookmyre has constructed his plot, but I couldn’t help thinking that it rather does McLeod a disservice.
That said, this is yet another accomplished, engaging, smart and funny piece of crime writing, plotted and executed with no small amount of skill, style and craft.
When the Devil Drives, by Chris Brookmyre
Little, Brown, 388pp, £17.99
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