Scotland Or No was written before the Referendum, though correctly predicting its outcome, and is steeped in the heady atmosphere of the time.

In a campaign that was praised for its peaceful nature, the Internet, not the street, was where the worst aggression took place, and that's the battleground in this novel too. The central character, Alan Stewart, ekes out a living by creating bogus Facebook and Twitter accounts to "like" his clients' products: virtual people summoned out of nowhere to service a need.

It so happens that Alan's estranged father, Ranald Stewart, has a hefty online presence as well. Known as Scotland's leading conspiracy theorist, he takes extraordinary measures to stay under the radar while taking pot shots at his nemesis, a hillwalking blogger, whom he accuses of attacking and undermining the Nationalist cause under a variety of aliases. Quite how widespread this practice was in the Referendum campaign I have no idea, but Burnett recreates the febrile, accusatory online atmosphere very convincingly.

Loading article content

Virtual people, not unlike the kind that he creates himself, are key to the conspiracy Alan stumbles across, and that sense of unreality creeps off the Internet and into his own life. There are plenty of people who insist that his own father doesn't really exist either, and if we hadn't already witnessed an awkward chance meeting between them on the streets of Edinburgh we might be doubting his existence too.

Burnett is a noir fan, which shows in Scotland Or No's mood of suspicion and unease and his use of Edinburgh locations; but he's not, perhaps, the most sure-footed writer of thrillers. The level of threat never really escalates, not that we're given much reason to care about Alan anyway: the emotional repercussions of his father walking out on him don't advance the plot and so are barely touched upon. Likewise, the representative of the Establishment, who pops up out of nowhere at convenient moments to wave a cigar and spout helpful exposition, is more plot contrivance than character.

There's the germ of a good novel here, but also the sense that Scotland Or No doesn't know quite what sort of a book it wants to be - conspiracy thriller, political satire, parable or an exposé of voting fraud - perhaps by being written too hurriedly. But even that gives it an urgency, a feeling of being on the spot as history was taking place and that distance might have lent it polish but robbed it of immediacy.