The past few years have seen Chris Brookmyre explore new territory with the “space noir” of Places In The Darkness and the Ambrose Parry historical crime novel The Way Of All Flesh. Now, with Fallen Angel he gives us a standalone about families and their secrets. But what you hold is not a rogueishly funny novel with doses of entertaining polemic, this is a pin-sharp psychological thriller. There’s no explosive, gleeful opening, but a description of a death which carries elements of rage and contempt, which set the tone for the whole book.
In 2018, two families – the Temple clan and Vince and Kirsten – prepare for a holiday, all packing panics and pre-flight tensions. We are then thrust back to 2002, the last time the Temple family were all together in Portugal, next door to Vince, and what a collection they are. Retired academic Max has a new lease of life via a TV show appearance where he bested a Moon landing conspiracy theorist. Wife Celia, a narcissistic former actress beloved for youthful sci-fi roles in skimpy costumes, aims to have The Perfect Family Holiday with daughters Marion (married with two chaotic children) and Sylvie (last year a teen fox; this year a teen mother of 18-month-old Niamh), and son Rory (perpetual under-achiever).
We slip between the two summers, and between viewpoints as the story builds and the families fracture. And, through budding journalist Amanda, nanny to Vince and Kirsten’s son, we learn about a tragedy in 2002: Niamh Temple drowned. But facts are frustratingly few, and the online articles Amanda reads spin conspiracy theories to fill the gaps. We switch between the years, with ominous hints dropped about what really happened to Niamh as we watch the nuclear-level fallout affecting each member of the family, with a particular focus on Celia and Sylvie – now calling herself Ivy – and their toxic relationship.
Half-way in it seems inevitable that the truth is going to be far bigger and more painful than we expected – there’s that death in the prologue to be explored, and the loss of Niamh. And there’s Sylvie’s bombshell statement… I was frequently left reeling as more was revealed, both supporting and rubbishing what I had thought about the characters and events.
Fallen Angel is carefully paced, and while the setting is mostly warm Portugese sunshine, the sense of inevitable doom is chilling enough to make you cuddle up in a cashmere blanket. Meanwhile, there is little physical violence, but plenty to turn the stomach all the same.
And while Brookmyre has long created strong women, he really tests the reader in Fallen Angel with Celia and Sylvie/Ivy – two unpleasant, unforgiving and uncompromising women at the heart of the story. But as we see more of Ivy’s life, hear of the manipulation of her as a child, our sympathies shift. The woman she has become, all cold poise, is her creating armour against being hurt again.
There are a couple of scenes that brought back memories of Brookmyre’s earlier novel, Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, but here he is far more nuanced, which gives the exchanges, particularly one between Amanda and Ivy, more power. The revelations come thick and fast in the last section, with an enjoyable if perhaps slightly-too-neat cathartic moment at the end.
Fallen Angel shows Brookmyre’s immense skill as a writer at the top of his game, as well as what can be created in the crime/thriller genre. It’s simply compelling. - Louise Fairbairn
Fallen Angel, by Chris Brookmyre, Little, Brown, 291pp, £18.99