Book review: What You Pay For, by Claire Askew

What You Pay For, by Claire Askew. Picture: Lewis Khan
What You Pay For, by Claire Askew. Picture: Lewis Khan
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The second novel from Claire Askew is a visceral adventure for DI Birch, writes Kirsty McLuckie

Readers were introduced to DI Birch in Edinburgh crime writer Askew’s debut novel, All the Hidden Truths, which dealt with a campus shooting in a city college seen through the eyes of the female police officer, and the mothers of both the victim and the perpetrator. What You Pay For is the second in the series, but it would work as a standalone story, as it only contains occasional references to the previous case.

Here we get the inner thoughts of Birch as the police struggle against the clock to produce enough evidence to convict a notorious Glasgow gangland boss, and as she herself wrestles with an inappropriate relationship with the criminal’s defence lawyer and a very personal connection to the case.

READ MORE: Book review: All The Hidden Truths by Claire Askew

As readers of the first book will know, Birch has a missing brother, Charlie, a student who disappeared from his university Russian course 14 years before. The search for him ultimately led her to join the police but as we begin What You Pay For, despite her considerable skills as a detective, her attempts to find out what happened to him have proven fruitless. Her mother, always one to favour her son over her high-achieving daughter, died not knowing his fate, and seemed to blame Birch for not reuniting him with his family.

When Charlie reappears, however, following a decade and a half’s descent into a seedy life of underworld crime and people trafficking, his sister finds herself struggling to both protect him and also nail the truly vile character in control of a crime syndicate.

Askew is adept at tackling complicated action scenes. The novel opens with a police raid on drug runners landing their haul in Leith Harbour and she manages to get over the confusion in the dark, the fear and aggression and the tactics of the arresting officers without laboured explanations.

It is an explosive opening, and the pace is kept up when Birch herself becomes the target of some of Scotland’s most violent men. By compromising her professional position for the sake of her brother, she divests herself of the protection of fellow officers and has to tackle them alone.

READ MORE: Book review: Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie

Askew is a master of dialogue, with the cadences of Eastern European underworld figures and the banter between police officers all ringing true. A veteran weegie cop, Rab, is a wonderful creation, and it amused me that the Glasgow cops’ speech is recorded in the vernacular while Edinburgh folks’ speech is not – presumably that is how it would sound to an East Coaster.

Birch is a great character – easily able match the violence of her adversaries, beating up assailants and house breakers when required, but we are also aware of her inner doubts, her troubled conscience and a softer side that is still concerned with her love life and her friendships. She shrugs off the casual misogyny of older policemen who take her for the secretary and never becomes a cliched superhero – her kick-ass moves only ever get her out of trouble by the skin of her teeth.

There’s a pleasing vein of dark humour and Askew also has fun playing with the differences between Glasgow and Edinburgh. There’s a great scene in which a group of thugs in Rangers-blue tracksuits find themselves a long way out of their comfort zone in a Hibs bar.The violence is visceral, with murders and assaults described in horrifying detail, but the blood and brains are necessary to illustrate how fear can drag ordinary people into in a life of crime.

What You Pay For is in no way a whodunnit – we know from the start who the real villain is – but the breakneck pace and adrenaline rushes will leave readers as spent as the sleep-deprived DI Birch. - Kirsty McLuckie

What You Pay For, By Claire Askew, Hodder & Stoughton, 341pp, £14.99

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