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Russel D McLean
Review by Shirley Whiteside
TWO middle-aged women may not seem the ideal protagonists for a crime novel but in Claire MacLeary’s debut they offer a refreshingly different approach to the private investigator genre. The setting is respectable suburban Aberdeen and the city’s dank housing estates with their drug dealers and feral children. MacLeary’s double act are not exactly Cagney and Lacey but that is what makes them so interesting. Maggie Laird is the prim widow of a disgraced police officer who eked out a living as a private investigator when he was flung out of the police for corruption. Her next door neighbour, Wilma, is brash and gaudy but she has the street smarts that Maggie lacks. When Maggie discovers she has been left with debts that her part-time job will not cover, Wilma encourages her to take over her late husband’s clients. Maggie agrees but with two conditions. Firstly, Wilma becomes her partner, and secondly that they set out to clear her husband’s name. This odd couple rub along, knocking the edges off each other and discovering as much about themselves as each other. Maggie begins to let her guard down while Wilma shows that she is far more capable than either of them could have imagined. Murder, drug dealing, vicious gangs and dodgy policemen: the women take them all on in their own fashion. MacLeary has created a fast-paced tale with enough sub-plots to sustain the reader’s interest from first to last. Maggie, with her skelly eye, and Wilma with her spray painted leggings, make a formidable duo and there is plenty of scope for MacLeary to continue the adventures of the Aberdonian quines.
Russel D McLean’s seventh novel is set in Glasgow and features Jen Carter, a failed writer who has become a bookseller. McLean knows plenty about Jen’s job, being a former bookseller himself before turning to writing full time. Ed, Jen’s boyfriend, is not the reliable type and has some dubious connections with Glasgow ‘businessmen’. One night Jen accidentally kills Ed and instead of calling the police and explaining, she decides to dispose of Ed’s body. She calls Dave, Ed’s stoner flatmate, and they get rid of the body. They split Ed’s loot; Jen takes his stash of cash while Dave takes custody of the drugs. At first it seems as if they have managed to get away with it but the money and the drugs didn’t actually belong to Ed and their rightful owner wants them back. Jen finds herself being chased by a hitman, gangsters, journalists, and crooked policemen. As the bodies pile up the tabloid press name her The Most Dangerous Woman in Scotland.
There is a lot of violence in this novel, and some of it is brutal, but McLean provides enough characterisation and pitch black humour to stop it sliding into a kill-fest. Solomon Buchan, who rules the city by instilling fear in his employees and victims alike, promises bloody vengeance on anyone who crosses him. Michael, a corrupt cop, is living too close to the edge and making too many mistakes for Buchan’s liking. Dave, Ed’s supposed friend, shows an unlikely entrepreneurial streak that only serves to plunge him further into trouble. The most intriguing character is Jen Carter, who starts off living a normal, anodyne life with a charming but dodgy boyfriend, her dreams being pushed on to the back burner as she sells books instead of writing them. Her instinct to call Dave rather than the police when she kills Ed seems odd, as is her agreement to go along with his rather gory plan. She lies and cheats like a pro and stands up to Buchan when no one else will. Death follows her around like a bad smell but she never seems broken by her losses. Is she really an innocent caught up in other people’s deadly games or does she have hidden depths? It is this dichotomy that makes her so fascinating. McLean has left the door open for Jen to return for another duel with the bad guys.
Contraband, an imprint of Saraband Books dedicated to crime and thriller novels, has already had major success with Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. These novels will enhance their reputation for publishing gripping Scottish crime novels.