Book review: No Man’s Land, by Neil Broadfoot

Stirling could make a decent claim to be the centre of the crime fiction world – for a few days each year, at least. The annual Bloody Scotland festival held in the city brings together writers from across the globe offering the ever-expanding ranks of Tartan Noir fans the chance to meet the men and women who create their favourite characters.In the boring old real world, homicide levels in Scotland are at their lowest since 1975. Most Scots will, statistically speaking, never suffer from a violent crime – not that you would know from the number of corpses that routinely pile up in the UK’s most popular genre of fiction. And writers can still make a killing if they can find a new angle in this crowded market.

Neil Broadfoot
Neil Broadfoot

While Glasgow and Edinburgh, with their diverse populations and sprawling size are the preferred backdrops for the majority of crime novels set in Scotland, Stirling can now boast a dark thriller of its very own. No Man’s Land is the first in a series by Neil Broadfoot, its cover promising that for one character “Stirling’s present is about to get as bloody as its past”.

Broadfoot, a former journalist with The Scotsman among other papers, earned good reviews for his 2014 debut novel, Falling Fast, which was followed by The Storm and All The Devils. Utilising his own experience, Broadfoot writes knowledgeably about the media and its sometimes fraught relationship with the police when reporting on major crimes.

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No Man’s Land follows a different path with a fresh ensemble. Out goes reporter Doug McGregor and Police Scotland detective Susie Drummond of the earlier series, and in comes reporter Donna Blake and close protection specialist Connor Fraser, a Stirling native and a former copper with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The pair find themselves engrossed by a number of violent murders in Stirling, a city that doesn’t usually trouble homicide detectives.

Deaths in crime thrillers are rarely banal as writers compete to come up with ever more grisly murders – bland living rooms and the kind of dreary domestic scene where most people in reality meet their Maker, don’t get a look in. No Man’s Land begins with the discovery of a body on the green in front of Cowane’s Hospital – a setting Bloody Scotland visitors will know as the site of the writers’ football match – just a short walk from the gates of Stirling Castle.

Blake, a freelance reporter currently working in radio, is keen to find an angle to scoop the major broadcast networks who are taking an interest in the story. Fraser, meanwhile, is horrified to learn that the killer may have a link to his own troubled past in Northern Ireland.

The action comes thick and fast – chapters rarely stretch beyond four pages. But while this provides an entertaining narrative, there isn’t much chance to get to know the characters along the way.

Some readers may also struggle to become emotionally invested in someone working in the private sector as a “close protection specialist”. While the murky world of private sector protection is growing, those employed in it are not always straightforward good guys, whereas we forgive fictional detectives for their personal failings as ultimately we trust them to do what is right.

Fraser has the makings of a complex character. But in what is a fast-paced book with plenty going on, we come away feeling we barely know him at all. Perhaps more will be revealed in the next instalment.

No Man’s Land, by Neil Broadfoot Constable, 312pp, £8.99