Book review: Under the Marsh, by GR Halliday

GR HallidayGR Halliday
GR Halliday
This this third outing for DI Kennedy is an engrossing thriller with a cast of entertainingly quirky characters, writes Kirsty McLuckie

Set around Inverness and the Black Isle, Under the Marsh is a gripping tale of police working on a decades-old cold case, and it opens with an intriguing scene. DI Monica Kennedy has been summoned to a meeting with a prison inmate, Pauline Tosh, who she was responsible for apprehending years before. Tosh is a psychopath, a rare female serial killer, whose crimes saw her travelling the country in a camper van, working odd jobs where she could and strangling her victims for pleasure. It is a fascinating exchange – the killer using information as currency with the police officer. When Kennedy asks Tosh what kind of story she has for her, she replies “Maybe the nasty kind”, with “a thin smile creeping onto her face”.

Tosh reveals just enough tantalising information to lead police to start digging at the Witches Coffin, a rectangular concrete landmark near the Caledonian Canal which can only be seen at low tide. When they discover a body, it is assumed that this is another historic victim of the serial killer, but things aren’t so straightforward.

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The narrative is intercut with descriptions of the teenage victim’s final few days in 1994, as she prepares to run away from home to head for the bright lights of Berlin with glamorous new friends. The farewell note to her parents meant her disappearance was never properly investigated at the time, but once the police identify the body as that of Freya Sutherland, they take a new interest in the three people she was associating with before she vanished. One is now an angry celebrity chef, one an MSP who has already fully lawyered up and the third is in a mental hospital and barely able to function, let alone explain the happenings of that summer. There are hints that the group, when young, also had associations with a faded Scottish celebrity, a corpulent comedian whose politically incorrect routines have not allowed his career to survive to the current day.

All of which makes for a brilliant cast of characters – and Kennedy is also a wonderful creation. Her main handicap, it appears, is that she is extraordinarily tall and ruefully self-conscious about it. Walking through a hospital ward: “She felt the eyes of six patients land on her, the familiar sense of being a walking curiosity: Is this the grim reaper, here among us?”

She is also single, with a young daughter, although she is definitely missing having a sexual partner, which causes her mind to wander whenever she meets a possible lover, however unsuitable. Her police partner, Crawford, is ten years younger than her, a foot shorter, of lower rank, has a girlfriend and a dubious sexual record. That doesn’t stop the chemistry developing between the two colleagues, however, and at times the novel positively crackles with will-they, won’t-they tension.

Crawford’s relationship with Kennedy’s mother is one which Kennedy views with both affection and irritation. “Her mum, Angela Kennedy (aged sixty-seven) and DC Connor Crawford (aged thirty-one) had struck up an unlikely friendship. Annoyingly Angela had taken to citing his opinion on matters ranging from her favorite topics – crime fiction and police procedure – to criminal psychology.”

Minor characters are given amusing quirks too: the junior officer attempting to impress his superior with his diligence (or does he fancy Kennedy?) and the forensic archeologist who revels in the grim procedure of searching for cadavers, a practice which starts with pushing a stick into the ground only to withdraw it and sniff the end for olfactory evidence of putrid flesh.

Under the Marsh, by GR HallidayUnder the Marsh, by GR Halliday
Under the Marsh, by GR Halliday

This is the third in a series featuring Kennedy, but at no point do you feel that you are missing information from previous books and there is no clunky catching up with characters. Under the Marsh stands alone as an engrossing read.

Under the Marsh, by GR Halliday, Vintage, 370pp, £8.99