Book review: Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre

Jack Parlabane takes back seat in sharp social media satire, writes Louise Fairbairn

Author Chris Brookmyre

Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre | Little, Brown, £18.99

Having heard Chris Brookmyre talk about Black Widow at last autumn’s Bloody Scotland crime writing festival, where he also gave a hilarious and razor sharp explanation of why he is a feminist, I was eager to start reading.

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Taking on the rise of online trolling and the rape and death threats hurled at women via social media, and throwing old-school journalist Jack Parlabane into the mix, sounded like the recipe for a vintage Brookmyre novel, filled with biting polemic. So I was inwardly sighing a couple of chapters in at the suggestion that one of the women in the story might be a psychopath – the female psychopath having become such an over-hyped device in fiction in recent years.

However, by the time we had moved from the court scenes at the start of the novel (though they are in fact the end of the story) to the point where we get up close and personal with the meat of the plot, I was a lot happier, as black and white gave way to more satisfying shades of grey.

Diana, a successful surgeon by day and righter of wrongs via her Scalpelgirl blog by night, has her life torn apart by internet trolls when she takes a step too far online. She retreats to Scotland, gets a new job and finds romance with IT expert Peter.

Six months on, they are married. Six months on from the wedding, her life is again in ruins as Peter vanishes after his car crashes off the road and into a river. But Peter’s sister, Lucy, thinks there is more to the tale than a simple tragedy, and enlists Parlabane – himself struggling after losing his career to the Leveson Inquiry and his wife to a sorry divorce – to dig deeper.

Brookmyre’s re-creations of Scalpelgirl’s blog posts and the reactions they spark had me nodding as I read, but the social media stuff is really just a hook – the author’s real interest remains people and the good and bad that lies within everyone; male or female; journalist, surgeon or IT expert.

My one regret about Black Widow is that the Jack Parlabane we meet here is no longer the corruption-chasing cat burglar-cum-knight in dented armour of previous novels. Lucy’s plea for help and the tale he uncovers piques both his interest and ours, but here he is just part of the ensemble cast.

It would be unfair to say much more about the plot – suffice to say that Black Widow does its best to evade you at every turn, demanding your full attention, and though you may need to suspend disbelief here and there, the wilder reaches are balanced by the solid foundation of the characters.