Book review: Proof of Life by Karen Campbell

PROOF OF LIFE BY KAREN CAMPBELL Hodder & Stoughton, 469pp, £19.99ok

All around is smoke and mirrors. Karen Campbell's fearlessly plotted fourth novel plays with perception right from its opening sentence, although you don't appreciate how much until later. This slow-burn thriller exploits the classics of the genre - secrets, lies and misdirection - but does it so skilfully that the mechanics are camouflaged amid the emotional entanglements of lives lived.

The action starts seconds after a burning car careers into the plate-glass doors at Glasgow Airport in the June 2007 terror attack, setting the stage for a drama played out against a backdrop of fear and paranoia. The story is scrupulously stage-managed, key players getting quietly into position - so quietly that for all you sense the tension building it's still a shock when a clutch of disparate stories hurtle headlong into each other.

Anna Cameron, conflicted Glasgow chief inspector, is back and facing the cruellest challenge of her life: she's seven months' pregnant and surrounded by people who truly care for her. At work, her new boss is the antithesis of the bullying Marion Hamilton of Shadowplay - she's warm, understanding and eager to put Anna on lighter duties. At home, her live-in partner of 22 months is patient, loving and kind. Is this where it ends, in quiet domesticity and a safe job planning security for the 2014 Commonwealth Games? Rob's hormonal teenage daughter Laura keeps Anna on her mettle, but as the career cop negotiates unfamiliar domestic territory, questioning everything except her love and the rightness of having this baby, the real drama - a previous case come back to threaten her - insinuates itself into all their lives, raising questions about justice, truth and the responsibilities of love.

Campbell, an accomplished wordsmith, excels here. You can touch and smell her Glasgow November dreichness, but always her images are unexpected, her prose tight, and her narrative unflinching. As a former Strathclyde Police officer, she has no illusions about the pressures and compromises, the dogged determination and unlooked-for heroism, of the job. This is no police procedural - her officers are raw and real.

As for Anna herself, readers of the earlier novels will know her strengths and weaknesses; here she confronts the consequences of a past mistake, which only become clear as her life threatens to spin out of control. How far can she go to protect herself and her new family, and will she ask for help?

Of the book's many other characters, most of them working coppers, two are fundamental.Mary - not her real name - is a teenage runaway, she has found refuge at a riding stables in Maryhill run by a lesbian couple, one of whom, Bernie (not her real name either), turns up dead in the Forth and Clyde Canal. Mary, devastated, sets out to find the killer, becoming briefly a suspect herself. As she assembles vital pieces of the truth, she demonstrates an ingenuity and courage that is by turns audacious and naive. Then there's Joe, a tall, geeky sixth-former, desperate to be part of the in-crowd. Instead, they mock him: he's too bright, and too Asian. We catch glimpses of Joe as he tries, and repeatedly fails, to win the respect of his white, middle-class schoolmates. His struggles mainly happen off-stage; but you know he'll take his place in the drama eventually.

The denouement is head-behind-cushion nightmarish, brilliantly done, but it follows a twist that stretches credulity to its limits. Is the ending convincing? I'm open to persuasion in Campbell's next offering. With so many threads left trailing, the possibilities are surely endless.