Book review: Dark Waters, by GR Halliday

GR Halliday’s latest contribution to the Tartan Noir universe is complex, gruesome and deftly handled

GR Halliday
GR Halliday

One assumes, charitably, that publishers know their business. When it’s a question of crime fiction, they seem to have concluded that readers want bulk and gore. Certainly over the last 20 years or so crime novels have got longer and bloodier. Simenon wrote novels you could read in an afternoon. So often did that underrated master Robert Barnard. GR Halliday’s second novel is long at more than 400 pages, and seems even longer. It gives us killings as horrible as a Sam Peckinpah movie. Think Straw Dogs with the addition of a spot of cannibalism. Those who like this sort of thing will love it.

It’s set in the Highlands where the author lives, and atmospherically it’s very good, dark and mysterious .We start with two bodies found in the water; they are missing limbs. Then Annabelle,a young Englishwoman driving very fast on a lonely road, crashes her car as she avoids a young girl who has suddenly appeared in front of her. She comes to in an underground private prison where a strange young man tends to her immediate needs and tells her “The Doctor” will be with her soon. It is not long before the mysterious doctor decides he must amputate her leg. Later she will discover that there is another prisoner in an even worse state than she is.

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What is all this about? Who is this mysterious doctor performing operations in his private subterranean surgery?

Meanwhile, the police are busy with the case of the murdered men, one identified as a prominent businessman, the other as a petty criminal; what can the connection be? Halliday astutely recognizes that the more bizarre your crime, the better it is to balance this with an investigation rooted in everyday reality. These days it has become normal for this to be led by a woman, and DI Monica Kennedy fits the bill nicely. She’s in early middle-age, a single woman with a young daughter and an elderly mother to take some of the burden of childcare. Even so, Monica has to juggle police work with her duty as a mother, and sometimes to interrupt her investigation to collect her daughter from nursery school. There is, however, a dark shadow hanging over her: the memory of her domineering late father, a prison officer, not innocent of criminality himself.

Some of the plot turns on the consequences of the construction of great hydro-electric schemes in the years after the war, the disruption caused both to local people living then in apparently settled communities and to the natural landscape (very well described).This disruption led to the isolation of one family in particular and to widespread if intermittent criminality and violence.

There is always a problem when a novelist pursues two distinct lines.Here we have Monica’s investigation which involves an examination of the dead businessman’s family history and affairs on the one hand, and Annabelle’s experience of imprisonment on the other. Indeed, there are always two problems with such split narratives. First, they may not be of equal interest to readers. Second, can they be brought convincingly together? Halliday solves the second of these problems better than the first. The difficulty with the first is that the conditions of Annabelle’s imprisonment and the treatment she suffers are highly improbable, demanding more than the usual willing suspension of disbelief. That said, the two strands are eventually brought persuasively together, and Halliday adroitly manages the tension inherent in his ambitious plot.

There are also nice touches of the macabre. The mysterious and criminal “Affric men” may strain the reader’s credulity, but their part in the story is handled with such assurance that they are acceptable. Their role presents the reader with a more sinister view of the Highlands than that offered by the Scottish Tourist Board.

This is only GR Halliday’s second novel. His first – Dark Shadows – was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Debut Prize last year. He has now soared over the notorious second novel hurdle. DI Monica Kennedy is the sort of character who can carry a series. So Inverness may be the next Crime Capital of Scotland.

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Dark Waters, by GR Halliday, Harvill Secker, 426pp, £14.99

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