Book review: A city reeking of hate

The Stranger from Home by Frederic Lindsay Allison & Busby, 288pp, £19.99

FROM THE WINDOW OF HIS FLAT, Edinburgh's Detective Inspector Jim Meldrum sees youths ragging a tall man in an expensive overcoat. He walks away, then turns on his heel, picks up one of his tormentors and hurls him to the ground. Then he departs, leaving the boy with a broken leg. A few days later the same man, Barry Croft, is brought to Meldrum's attention by an anonymous letter. The writer says Croft's wife has disappeared. Questioned, Croft seems unconcerned. She's just gone away, will return when she feels like it. Later he admits she had found him with another woman. But so what? She wasn't angry. But Meldrum has seen Croft in action, knows that he has a quick and violent temper.

The investigation of Croft is one strand in this pacy, densely plotted novel. At the end of the last Meldrum novel, his daughter Betty went to America to escape her troubles (death of her first child, mental breakdown, one-night stand which produced her second son, broken marriage, depression etc.). She meets a man with a Scots accent at a friend's wedding, and falls in love. They marry quickly and move to Phoenix, Arizona. She knows nothing about her new husband, not even his job, only that he says "Money's no problem". Then he disappears. The local police don't seem interested, but two sinister figures – Policemen? Secret agents? Criminals? – question her. She flies back to Scotland where she has left her son with her mother, Meldrum's ex-wife, now with a man he hates.

That's the intriguing set-up. The narrative is carried forward in short, often disturbing, chapters, as Meldrum tries to balance the investigation of what he is sure is a murder, though there is no body, with protecting his daughter and solving her problems. These are made more acute when her husband, reported dead in America, appears in Edinburgh, followed by two sinister heavies.

There is an old adage: "What the devil is the plot good for, but to bring in fine things?" This is true enough, though a mystery novel must have a plot, and Frederic Lindsay is now an accomplished and scrupulous plotter. Yet the adage is true to this extent: that the plot of a Lindsay novel is not something you are likely to remember. It serves as the excuse for the exploration of shades of feeling and the evocation of mood. The feelings are always complicated, because the characters in his novels are never simple; and the mood is bleak. Lighter moments are like the occasional streaks of sunshine that appear briefly in grey, rainy sky above the Edinburgh chimney-pots.

In the first novels in the series, Meldrum seemed a figure from central casting, with no more individuality than his so ordinary name suggested. He has developed since, both in complexity of character and authority. This is unusual. In most mystery series the central figure – whether policeman or private investigator – becomes less interesting and credible with each book. The quirks he has been given become mere tics, pleasing to the reader because they are familiar.

But Meldrum has become more interesting because he has become more convincingly troubled, more uncertain of himself, worried, low-spirited, finding it difficult to express the sympathy and affection he feels. Lindsay has had the wit and skill to avoid romanticising him. He would not, I'm sure, describe him as Chandler's "shop-soiled Galahad". Yet it is precisely because he would not do so that Meldrum, paradoxical as it may seem, is capable of filling that role.

There are weaknesses in this novel. The US subplot is not convincing; it is not even clear. Yet this too, intentionally or otherwise, works ultimately to the novel's advantage. The reader follows Meldrum's hesitating footsteps leading into a world where much is not as it seems to be, where uncertainties remain even when the action has reached its conclusion.

There are crime writers whose novels are more exciting than Lindsay's, who offer a richer picture of a corrupt society. Yet there are few more intelligent and sympathetic, few who more surely present us with a convincing and disturbing simulacrum of life as we know it, or fear it may be.

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