Andrew Scott
(Twa Corbies, £9.99)

In the course of his four previous outings, Andrew Scott’s Edinburgh-based journalist Willie Morton has developed quite a nose for sniffing out covert plots by MI5 spooks, politicians and civil servants to subvert the democratic process and keep Scottish affairs under Westminster control – usually attracting a great deal of trouble, and the occasional brush with death, for his efforts.

In a series whose instalments jump around in time, this latest takes place in 2009, following on from the events of Deadly Secrecy. Morton has written a book about his investigation into the death of anti-nuclear activist Angus McBain, only to see sales dry up after the first couple of months. At 37, Morton is divorced, living in a flat he can no longer afford, driving around in an old Volkswagen Beetle and freelancing for the Scottish Standard while chasing “that big career-defining story [that] still eluded him”.

On a depressing trip to Glasgow to sign some books at a shop that hadn’t even been told he was coming, Morton is approached by a man who wants to share some information with him. He believes that a recent by-election in Glenforgan, Fife, was rigged.

This is all taking place during Gordon Brown’s brief tenure as Prime Minister, and everyone knows that it won’t be long before he will be facing off against David Cameron in a General Election.

In Scotland, power is shifting away from Labour towards the SNP and the momentum of the independence movement is building in the long run-up to the referendum. In this context, the Glenforgan by-election is significant, as it was a surprise win for Labour in a constituency that was expected to be carried by the SNP.

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Morton doesn’t believe the by-election was fraudulently won, but he’s always on the lookout for a story, so starts to make enquiries. What he finds is that bin-bags full of election registers have disappeared from the basement of the Glenforgan Sheriff Court and that a shady, elusive character named Raymond Mearns may be the key to understanding what happened to them.

The recently-installed Deputy Returning Officer, Neil Shankwell, has questions to answer – and gets aggressive when Morton asks them.

A conspiracy begins to emerge, which, in best Andrew Scott fashion, oozes its way up the corridors of power to an unaccountable off-the-books department devoted to keeping the United Kingdom together by extinguishing the flames of nationalism. It also seems to share connections with the nascent New Britain Party, led by a man who rejoices in the name of Michael Ramage.

It’s not subtle, but thrillers shouldn’t have to be. Raymond Mearns makes an effective, sneering villain, ashamed of his council house past, irritated by the suggestion that he “sounded Scottish” and surrounding himself with the trappings of success.

Morton’s superficial, materialistic ex-wife, far happier working in London than sweating away in the provinces, is less thoroughly fleshed-out, little more than a cameo. But both are measured and found wanting against the down-at-heel but dogged and honourable Morton and characters like his salt-of-the-earth father, a former soldier whose experiences soured him on British imperialism and who now potters away in his garden and supports independence.

Informed by his former jobs as a journalist and parliamentary media officer, and with a host of fiction and non-fiction books under his belt, Scott has got these conspiratorial thrillers off to a fine art, balancing political intrigue, suspense and paranoia with good pacing and solid character work, whether he’s putting his hapless hero in the path of a beating, a dressing-down or an awkward date.