Thanks to adhering to the school of “write what you know”, WHS McIntyre offers fans of Tartan Noir something fresh: he and his fictional hero, Robbie Munro, are both defence lawyers (though the latter is less successful than his creator). The seventh book in the Best Defence series, and the first to find a mainstream publisher – two further novels are due out on Sandstone next year – Present Tense mixes increasingly complex inquiries into a suspicious helicopter crash, a subplot about a rape case and Robbie’s personal life into a page-turning read, all helped by a clear and crisp writing style.
Into Robbie’s office one winter’s morning walks Billy Paris, a former client who needs a favour, and as Robbie agrees to help in the hope of getting rid of Billy, we see our hero walk straight into one of those grey areas so beloved of crime fiction. Within a handful of pages, Robbie’s legal practice teeters on the verge of collapse as he is suspended by the Scottish Legal Aid Board due to its desire for him to spend a lot more time with his paperwork. And then for good measure, his personal life takes a turn for the complicated.
As Robbie juggles his cases with his colleague Joanna, due to the suspension, and tries to find out what the Ministry of Defence police want with the box Billy left for safe-keeping, we enter a world of politicking over spaceport sites, former boy band members, nosy journalists and the difficulties of obtaining a Pyxie Girl doll for Robbie’s daughter, Tina, for Christmas. As the pages turn and more intrigue is piled on, it becomes clear that only one of these problems cannot be solved by a dogged defence lawyer with a dark sense of humour.
There are flaws here – the introduction setting up the family’s history is a lazy tool when the information would have been better drip-fed into the story, and the rape case subplot left me uncomfortable (Robbie’s attitude to the alleged victim is not all that pleasant). And though the complexities of the relationships between Robbie, his father and his brother are captured well, and his daughter is wittily drawn, others veer rather close to cliché.
But the writing is always sharp, there is dark Scottish humour aplenty (I loved the two MoD officers and his stern secretary in particular), and overall Present Tense is a fine yarn. The depiction of the criminal justice system from the perspective of the legal personnel, rather than cops or criminals, is a fresh take for the Tartan Noir scene and I look forward to seeing where McIntyre takes Robbie next.
*Present Tense, by WHS McIntyre, Sandstone Press, £8.99
*This review was amended on 29 September to reflect the fact that Present Tense is the seventh book in the Best Defence series