Jack Parlabane: books 1–3

As of April this year, there are nine books in Chris Brookmyre’s series about Glaswegian investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. I read a lot of Brookmyre back in the early 2000s, so I had read the start of this series before, but then years elapsed and rather than pick up where I left off, I thought I’d start from the beginning again. It’s been a real pleasure.

Quite Ugly One Morning
by Christopher Brookmyre

Parlabane is introduced in style in this action-packed romp. Recently returned to Scotland from LA after a difference of opinion with someone powerful who wants him dead, he is laying low in Edinburgh, until suddenly he’s face to face with police. It turns out there’s a dead body in the flat directly below his, which he discovers when he has locked himself out of his own flat, half undressed. By the time he has persuaded the police that he’s an innocent bystander, his journalistic interest has been piqued and he is pulled into a complex plot involving nefarious businessmen and Tory Party shenanigans. Each of these books has a political angle and in this case Brookmyre’s target is the Tory restructure of the NHS. It sounds like a dull basis for satire, but he efficiently finds the interesting angle and digs the knife right in, mercilessly mocking Tory policy. I can’t say I mind, as a fellow liberal lefty, but I do wonder how right-wing or non-political readers would take this. Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun. And I do love the character of Dr Sarah Slaughter.

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Holiday in Scotland

We spent the last week of June in Scotland, in the small town of Oban on the west coast. It was beautiful, and relaxing, and did I mention beautiful? Our hotel room looked out over the water and we watched some stunning sunsets from there. We went for walks, read our books, took thousands of photos (literally thousands) and enjoyed the fantastic scenery.

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June 2017 reading round-up

Tackle and Books

It’s another month when I read a lot and blogged little. It’s not that I lacked things to blog about – a fantastic open-air Manic Street Preachers gig, the Wonder Woman film, a wonderful holiday in Scotland – but I was too busy doing those things to stop and write about them!

My reading this month was…eclectic. The standout was The Girls by Emma Cline, a very creepy book about a girl who joins a dangerous cult in 1960s California. Cline manages to convey how these on-the-surface unappealing cult members reeled in the vulnerable with just the right words and promises. It still gives me shivers thinking about it!

I will share some more pics from my Scotland holiday once I’ve sorted through at least some of them, but for now, above is a very well named bookshop in Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull. It was a pretty good shop, too.

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The cruelty of children

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
by Christopher Brookmyre

This book took a while to grow on me. I was a little disappointed from the start to realise that it wasn’t part of the Jack Parlabane series, and its structure was at first an irritation, before I realised how vital it was to the storyline, and how clever.

Martin is a successful lawyer to the rich and famous. He gets a phonecall one night from an old schoolfriend asking him to go back to Braeside where another old schoolfriend has been arrested for the murder of…you got it, yet another former classmate. And another classmate’s dad. And another classmate is in a coma, while yet another is the policewoman leading the investigation. The scene is set for a lot of memory dredging, facing up to childhood prejudices and crime-solving.

The narrative skips between current day – beginning with two crooks trying to dispose of the bodies – and school days, tackled year by year. Hidden behind the Glasgow dialogue and ever-changing nicknames is all the complexity of childhood – the complicated tangle of loyalties that are constantly switching, the importance placed on certain games and certain moments, the favours given and the mistreatments that were never forgotten.

There’s a lot of very believable childishness here: the changing slangwords; the fear of recrimination from saying, doing or reacting in a non-uniform way; the moments of innocent naivety followed by awful realisation. It’s not exactly how I remember primary school. We weren’t all swearing in every sentence from the start as Brookmyre’s class seems to be. And the rough talk and violent threats started later to my knowledge, but then I wasn’t a boy and all that was the boys’ domain, after all. With girls it’s all about the bitching and the name-calling and the cliques and I most certainly remember that.

In fact, though I struggled with it a little at first, mostly due to the dialogue, the school stuff was far more clever and subtle and well-written than the adult part of the book. As adults, the same characters seem to be either remarkably well adjusted or in a complete mess and in need of a life lesson. Which they duly receive. Okay, it’s not quite that simplistic but there is a certain tendency for old friends to declare “I told you so”. But the adult part does have the murder mystery, which slowly unravels into a much more complicated picture than it initially appears.

Though it has its moments, this book isn’t as funny as previous Brookmyre novels that I’ve read. It’s not bleak and heavy either, and at a push I might call it black comedy, but the genuine comic moments are few and far between. There also isn’t a single main character with the charm and presence of Brookmyre regular Jack Parlabane, but by the end of the book he has fleshed out almost a whole classful of rounded, believable individuals, which is no small achievement.

I would say this isn’t quite as fun and light a read as other Brookmyre books, but it still served me well on my beach holiday.

First published 2006 by Little, Brown.

Sharp wit and sharp weapons

Country of the Blind
by Christopher Brookmyre

This book is just right if you have a day free to do nothing but read – whether it’s a restful holiday or a rainy Sunday. The plot is thick and fast and the language fun but also sharp-edged. Brookmyre always picks a clear target in his novels, a dartboard to throw poison arrows at, and in this case it’s the Tory Party, so I was happy.

In fairness there is a scene early on in which a wise (Tory) father advises his youthful (liberal) daughter not to assume that all members of the widely hated party are monsters, quoting Orwell’s Two Minute Hate. When said character advocates more discourse and exchanging of ideas, I had to wonder what Brookmyre thinks of the current UK coalition government. But I digress…

Like all Brookmyre’s novels (at least all those I’ve read, which is a lot of them) this is crime fiction written with vicious humour and some very interesting lead characters, a number of whom feature in his other books. Lead character is investigative journalist Jack Parlabane (in his second outing, because I read this out of sequence) who is about to get married and is therefore earnestly trying to give up his former tendency to get involved in very dangerous things, things that tend to get even more dangerous when he throws himself into the mix. And when he sees the initial reports about the murder of billionaire media mogul (and Tory backer) Roland Voss, Parlabane is more than happy to stay out of it. The police already have the four suspects behind bars, after all. However, the clues soon start piling up that all is not what it seems and Parlabane inevitably gets involved, only to discover that it goes deeper than even he had suspected.

Good crime fiction doesn’t rely on good writing and for every well worded witticism here there’s an unnecessary repetition or an overemphasis that grates a little. I also tend to struggle a little at first with the dialect, as Brookmyre favours setting his novels in his native Glasgow. Not that the entire book is written in dialect, but there’s a lot of speech. Another bugbear I have is Brookmyre’s habit of opening a chapter with the end or middle of a scene, and then going back to how it started, which is interesting (if confusing) once or twice but several times is tedious.

Those reservations aside, I’ll admit that I’m a fan. This is no whodunnit – the who is revealed fairly early on and the how not long afterward. The race to the finish is about whether Parlabane will figure it out and find a way to prove it before too many innocent people die. He doesn’t work alone, of course. His insider in the police, DS Jenny Dalziel, is underused in this story – I seem to remember she had a bigger role in Quite Ugly One Morning – but there’s so many other characters that this is forgiveable.

Parlabane is the classic loveable rogue, with an air of 007 about him. He bends rules left, right and centre but he gets away with it because he is without doubt the good guy and I can’t remember the character ever doing something that I personally disapproved of (unlike Bond).

The book is steeped in references to current affairs and culture and as such I’m not sure how well it will age. Reading this 13 years after publication is one thing – I can well remember the growing frustration at years of Tory government and the hopes for the 1997 election, even if I wasn’t quite old enough to vote yet – but give it a little more time and there may be one too many references to politicians already forgotten.

The other thing that dates this book was something I particularly liked about it: the modernisation of the newsroom. The 1990s saw the end of handmade layouts in favour of DTP software – something I’m more than a little familiar with – and it was with great interest I read the rants of the news editor about the unreliable output from the computer, and about the switch from huge artboards to the now-ubiquitous Mac. It was a minor detail really, but it was one of the things that can make all the difference, allowing you to trust that the author does at least some research – a vital necessity in crime fiction, I would argue.

This really is a fun, well plotted adventure that keeps you reading without relying on unexpected twists or manufactured countdowns. It sat on my to-read shelf for far too long but I suspect that the next one won’t have so much dust gathered on it.

Published 1997 by Little, Brown.