When Shadows Fall

Alex Gray

Sphere, £14.99

Review by Susan Swarbrick

ALEX Gray has become a familiar name on the Tartan Noir scene over the past two decades. Her books, all set in and around her native Glasgow, capture the beating heart of the city while never shying away from its grittier, less salubrious side.

Lead protagonist Detective Superintendent William Lorimer heads up the Major Investigation Team at Police Scotland, dealing with murder inquiries and serious crime. He is no-nonsense and work-obsessed, possessing a wry humour and steel-trap mind.

Before settling down with Gray's latest offering, When Shadows Fall, I did a quick tally of her back catalogue and was slightly gobsmacked to realise that this is the 17th instalment in the popular DSI Lorimer series that began with the debut, Never Somewhere Else, in 2002.

It's no easy feat, yet one that Gray – a former secondary school English teacher-turned-author and co-founder of the hugely successful Bloody Scotland crime-writing festival in Stirling – continues to nail with impressive aplomb.

When Shadows Fall opens with a grisly discovery. A skeleton is unearthed in a neglected, bramble-tangled corner of a garden at a remote property near Houston, Renfrewshire. Closer examination reveals a neat hole in its skull, the distinctive entry point from a bullet.

Who the skeleton belongs to, what happened in their final moments and how the body reached its resting place, to lie there undisturbed for years, must be painstakingly pieced together, analysing DNA fragments, ballistics, carbon dating, soil samples and sifting through cold case files.

Attention is diverted, however, by events unfolding several miles away in Inverkip. Another garden yields a dead body and this one is a fresh murder scene. The victim, an old friend and former colleague of Lorimer, has been shot in the head with pinpoint accuracy.

As Lorimer attempts to make sense of the killing and the potential motives behind it, there comes reports of two further murders in swift succession: both victims are former police officers.

While there doesn't appear any immediately obvious links involving the trio of retired cops – other than their erstwhile professions – as Lorimer is fond of saying: he doesn't believe in coincidences. This is a brutal and targeted campaign.

Psychologist and criminal profiler Professor Solomon Brightman – think Watson to Lorimer's Sherlock – must turn his astute understanding of the human mind to establishing a pattern and finding who is ordering the hitman-style executions before another life is snuffed out.

When Shadows Fall is a pacey read that fans of Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin will enjoy (Cleeves' Shetland hero DI Jimmy Perez, McDermid's Fife-based DCI Karen Pirie and Rankin's Edinburgh-set detective series, Rebus, are all cut from the same cloth as the dogged Lorimer).

A hallmark of Gray's writing is the cosy familiarity of the characters and worlds she conjures, while deftly weaving in the essential components of a meaty crime novel/gripping psychological thriller – suspense, twists and searing imagery – that will have you whipping through its pages.

The author clearly prides herself on attention to detail regarding police procedures and has done her homework when it comes to the mechanics of investigations and the hierarchical structures (some may stumble over the prolific use of acronyms in places, but this is merely a minor quibble).

Gray has a knack for multi-layered storytelling that will appeal to readers who have devoured all 16 previous books, as well as those who like to dip in and out of the collection – or are coming to her novels for the first time.

With such a long-running series, it could be easy to go off the boil. Rest assured there are few signs of that happening any time soon.