DON’T hold the front page for creaky thriller that keeps up the suspense, writes Jane Bradley
City Of Strangers
UP AND coming crime writer Louise Millar has returned to her roots for her latest work: a thriller based in Edinburgh. Millar, a Scot who spent much of her career working for women’s magazines in London, digs deep into the landscape of her childhood for City Of Strangers, which opens with Grace Scott returning from a honeymoon to her Edinburgh flat to find a dead body in the kitchen.
Seemingly unperturbed by the discovery, 35-year-old Grace, a would-be reportage photographer stuck in a job taking pictures for lifestyle features, grabs her camera and snaps away – the start of an obsession with identifying the victim and making her “big break” into journalism.
This is Millar’s fourth published novel, and although a lot of the writing is contrived and the prose somewhat clichéd in places – “his blue eyes, pink-rimmed with jetlag, popped comically against his tan” – it still manages to be a page turner. The plot is strangely gripping, taking the reader from the warehouses of Leith to Amsterdam, into the Paris underworld and back again to rural Fife, via tales of eastern Europe.
A second plot strand – the discovery of a couple of bodies on the Fife coast – doesn’t appear to be linked to Grace’s quest, but eventually becomes intertwined as the denouement steers her investigation closer to home.
Meanwhile, a mysterious man holed up in the back room of a corner shop underneath Grace’s flat provides some welcome intrigue.
Unfortunately, the scenes set in an Edinburgh newspaper office grate somewhat: the hard-bitten Glaswegian chief reporter of Scots Today with a dark secret in her past; the excited editor indulging in a lot of shouting and “marching around asking for headlines”.
The same goes for the contrived use of matey nicknames and awkward banter: Scott gets called “Scotty” by her good pal Ewan, a junior at the newspaper whom she knows from her time at journalism college. Relationships are not explored in much depth. Grace’s new husband, Mac, barely features at all, except as a presence at the end of a phone, attempting to convince her to give up her quest, while the inevitable romance between Grace and handsome fellow photographer Nicu is not examined very closely.
“What’s your surname?” Nicu asks Grace as she drives a right-hand drive car in Paris for the first time, while the pair are fleeing an unsavoury pursuer. “Scott”, she replies.
“Think Scott in the middle,” Nicu suggests, helpfully, in an attempt to prevent them from suffering a nasty car accident.
At the time, it seems odd. Incongruous. Why could he not have said: “Make sure you’re in the middle”? Why are we even talking about surnames at a time like this? Then the bizarre phrase is repeated later with a sentimental bent, as if it is “their thing”. And then, just when you thought the clichés couldn’t get any worse, the dead man, a tattooed down-and-out with criminal relatives, turns out to be eastern European. Romanian, of course. He was “working illegally” in both Amsterdam and Edinburgh – so presumably the book is supposed to be set before European borders were opened at the start of 2014.
Although the writing leaves a lot to be desired, Millar has still created a thriller which manages to engage until the very end. The twist which brings the novel to its conclusion is surprising, even shocking, but it’s very neat.
Like Millar’s previous work, this will appeal as a gripping thriller, with the Edinburgh setting an added bonus for Scottish readers.