Book review: Only The Dead Can Tell, by Alex Gray

The 15th novel in Alex Gray's Detective Superintendent Lorimer series begins with the death of a middle-aged woman, Dorothy Guildford, in her own home, the evidence pointing firmly towards her husband, Peter, as the person responsible for the knife embedded in her chest. Pathologist Dr Rosie Fergusson isn't convinced, however, and she clashes with the detective who's in charge of the case.

Alex Gray

Meanwhile, Lorimer is temporarily in Aberdeen, overseeing a major operation against human trafficking. After wrapping up a series of raids rescuing young women from forced prostitution, he returns to Glasgow, where it is believed the ringleader is based, and begins a quiet investigation into Peter Guildford’s possible links to his own case. When the suspect is attacked while on remand in Barlinnie, DC Kirsty Wilson, detailed to guard him in hospital, begins to wonder if there is more to the case than meets the eye – why target the husband if it’s “just another domestic”? Interviews after the prison attack throw up a man called “Max” as the leader of the trafficking gang, and Guildford’s reaction to hearing the name is enough for Lorimer to get the bit between his teeth.

Gray’s main good guys – Lorimer, Wilson, Fergusson and her husband, psychologist Professor Solomon (Solly) Brightman – are all thinkers, not given to impulsive actions (no rushing off after the bad guy without back-up here). They also tend to play within the rules, so there are no favours exchanged with shady characters, and definitely no sloping off for a few pints in the middle of a shift.

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My preference is for a little less thought and a little more action, but by keeping most of the violence off the page, Gray lets the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. It also means that what violence is seen packs a bigger punch – Dorothy’s death is all the more shocking for not just being one in a series. There is plenty of suspense too, and Gray plays cleverly on the contrasts between the family lives of the investigators and the investigated.

By the halfway point we’re no nearer finding out what is going on, let alone who is masterminding things, though plenty of secrets are being unearthed. A missing Slovakian girl, Juliana, turns up, complicating Lorimer’s case; new facts come to light about Dorothy; and a dead body connected to the mysterious Max is discovered.

The team have a stack of theories, but until they see how the threads weave together they won’t get very far. Indeed, Gray has packed so much in that at times it feels as if the book will burst at any moment. Then Solly makes a crucial breakthrough and everything starts to click into place ahead of a final showdown in a Govanhill tenement.

Only The Dead Can Tell will more than satisfy fans of Gray, and there’s plenty for the new reader to get their teeth into.

Only The Dead Can Tell, by Alex Gray, Sphere, £18.99