A Silent Death

Peter May

riverrun, £20

After his first novel, published when he was 26, was adapted by the BBC, Scottish author Peter May established himself as a successful TV writer, script editor and producer, since when he has written more than 20 novels.

A pro like May knows that every good detective needs a quirk. And what makes his creation John Mackenzie stand out from the page (and is responsible for his conspicuous lack of success as a police officer) is that he’s a pedantic, tactless know-it-all. The highly intelligent Mackenzie would have been a natural academic had he not been determined to follow his late father into the police force. A compulsive studier, he has degrees in mathematics and quantum physics and a better grasp of punctuation than his son’s English teacher. Wherever he’s worked, colleagues have disliked him for his arrogance, though he thinks he’s just being honest.

Mackenzie spent the first 17 years of his life in Glasgow, being raised by his aunt and uncle after his parents died, although he doesn’t consider his life to have truly begun until he stormed out of their house and moved to London. At the beginning of A Silent Death, he’s separated from his wife, who wants to break off his contact with their two children.

While he’s coming to terms with life in a grotty bedsit, figures are stirring in an English-speaking community on the Costa del Sol. Police are called to investigate intruders moving around in a house after the occupants have gone on holiday. Shots are fired, and when the smoke clears the officers realise that the “intruders” are actually the residents, who have returned home unexpectedly. In the confusion, British businessman Ian Templeton has shot his own wife dead. Subsequently, Templeton is discovered to be Jack Cleland, a gangster on the run.

Because of his fluency with languages, the National Crime Agency sends John Mackenzie to Spain to pick up Cleland at the airport and accompany him back to London. But when Cleland escapes custody it becomes a whole new ball game. Mackenzie is seconded to the Spanish police and partnered with young cop Cristina Sanchez Pradell, one of the officers who raided the house and the woman Cleland holds personally responsible for his wife’s death.

Peter May has wintered in the south of Spain for eight years, and this taut thriller really benefits from his connection with the location and his familiarity with the building projects, drug and people trafficking and the influx of Russian money into the area. Cleland, who has sworn revenge on Cristina’s family and is on a collision course with fellow Scot Mackenzie from the off, is a suitably threatening antagonist, a privately-educated “toff” with expensive tastes and a chilling psychopathic streak which is never more effective than when he’s alternately menacing and empathising with Cristina’s deaf and blind aunt. With strong characterisation, well-interlaced plot threads and a sense of impending doom leading to a cinematic climax, it’s a skilfully put together novel from a writer who knows what makes thrillers tick.