Book Review

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The Roots of Evil, by Quintin Jardine

The final quote on the back cover about this book, from the Glasgow Herald, tells us: “If Ian Rankin is the Robert Carlyle of Scottish crime writers, then Jardine is surely its Sean Connery”; notwithstanding that I’m not sure how complimentary (if at all) this is to the excellent Robert Carlyle, I think the comparison of Jardine’s writing to an actor, someone whose modus operandi is to believably become different people on a regular basis (although in Connery’s case, he could never quite relinquish his ‘shtrong’ Scottish accent, even when playing his best-known character, Bond), perhaps doesn’t convey the message that it was supposed to? In addition, whilst I endeavour to eschew judging a person by his appearance, I think it’s fair to say that one could be forgiven for thinking that the upper body photograph of this author, accompanying the short bio on the inside rear cover, especially by the way he is scowling straight down the lens, could easily be that of one of the ‘villains’ he is accustomed to writing about (although that is undoubtedly presumptuous, on the basis of only reading one of “more than forty published novels”), rather than a man in any way resembling the estimable Mr. Connery. Still, all that said, in Jardine’s defence, his Bob Skinner character (aka Sir Robert Skinner) is a horse of a different feather than Rankin’s Rebus, notwithstanding his predilection for copious use of the f-word; so, this is definitely ’grown-up’ fiction.

This was another book that felt, at first, like it might be ‘hard going’ (although that is probably more a reflection of my capacity to absorb new information than it is of the beginning of this story); and, be warned: there is no shortage of characters whose names must be memorised if the narrative is to be followed, especially given the size of Skinner’s family, as a result of a few different relationships/liaisons. However, it only took me a few chapters to start enjoying the story (and the layout, a very important factor in my enjoyment, of the hardback edition I read, was conducive to easy reading). There is a whiff of nepotism about the relationships between some of the characters, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when some of these relationships are with currently serving or ex-police officers, surely corruption can only be a half-step away (Line of Duty anyone?). The thread which holds the story together, and which provides the strands that have to be unravelled, is the murder of two police officers; one serving and the other now a civilian; whose bodies are left in a car which is dumped outside one of Edinburgh’s main police stations in the first hour of the first day of 2020 (so it is bang up to date, including a reference to concerns about a new respiratory infection that has surfaced in China at the end of the previous year, and Zoom calls; although I’m not sure how prevalent they were before the pandemic affected Britain): both have been shot, in similar, but crucially different ways.

The clues are revealed slowly, to enable the reader to piece the motivation of the killer or killers together; but of course, they are not revealed in a linear fashion, so a certain amount of mental dexterity is required to put each new nugget in its appropriate pigeonhole. There are international connections as well, so although the action might be confined to dour Edinburgh & its environs, the tentacles of the criminality behind the murders stretch far beyond it. Skinner is in an unusual position, in that he is now Chair of the UK division of an international media company, which among its many activities publishes one of Scotland’s top newspapers, The Saltire, so this can be useful to prevent, or at least mitigate unsavoury scrutiny of police actions and scurrilous speculation thereon; however, he hasn’t completely severed his police connections, because he mentors rising CID officers, and if it aids his investigations as & when required, he can produce a Special Constable’s warrant card. The investigation is brought to a successful conclusion, thereby also solving an outstanding case in another, distant, country, although this is not necessarily satisfactory for all parties involved. I can recommend this book, and I will certainly keep my eyes open for other books by Quintin Jardine. The Roots of Evil is published in hardback by Headline Publishing Group, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-5591-4; trade paperback is also available.

Book Review

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The Sleepwalker, by Joseph Knox

Although this is pure happenstance, it is unfortunate that I have read this book, published by Doubleday in 2019, ISBN 978-1-784-16218-4 [paperback] out of order, because the main character, Detective Sergeant Aidan Waits, might have made more sense, and been somewhat easier to like (possibly still a stretch, though) than he is in this third book. The stories are set in Manchester, England, although I think this is truly only of any significant interest to people who know the city well: from my own limited knowledge of it, I would say, no disrespect intended, that it has just as many scuzzy areas as most other major cities in Britain, and the criminals are probably no more or less unpleasant than those in any other city, so the stories could have been set anywhere; still, they have to be set somewhere, so Manchester it is. I don’t know if the author was deliberately trying to make Waits similar to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, with all the latter’s clearly visible character flaws, but I think there is a definite similarity; neither of the two quotes from Rankin about this or another book in the series mentions Waits, but a quote from The Guardian does mention the setting: “Knox presents the city as pungently and uncompromisingly as Ian Rankin does Edinburgh.”

The story is partly narrated by Waits, so we are treated to a lot of his stream of consciousness, which can become slightly wearing, but it is leavened with third-person reportage of the actions of other characters. Waits appears to be in a precarious position in his job, being almost universally disliked which, given his apparent incompatibility with the requirements for the job, are hardly surprising, but again, this is where some knowledge of his development as a police officer from the earlier stories would have helped: there are a few flashbacks which throw some light on this, however. The main thread of the story concerns the death of a serial killer, and its consequences, but there is also the thread of Waits’s relationship with one of the ‘top’ Manchester gangsters. Some sort of obligation to him is implied: “in a sense, I’d belonged to Zain Carver once”; but there is also the threat & consequent jeopardy that this would involve. Against his wishes, Waits is assigned a partner, DC Naomi Black and, whilst she is clearly efficient at her work, it is obvious to Waits that this DC has been foisted on him to monitor his work, presumably (to him) to give his superior clear evidence of misconduct, enough to throw him out of the Police service.

Waits, only too well aware of the nature of his position, has already made provision for a hasty departure, but these plans are scuppered by a dangerous player in the story, a female firearms officer by the name of Louisa Jankowski, who was on duty when the serial killer, Martin Wick, was killed in the hospital where he was already dying from cancer; so Waits is convinced that she is somehow involved with the murder, but he has to tread very carefully. While all this is happening, he has to deal with the news that his mother, from whom he has been estranged for many years, is about to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act; he suffers from panic attacks, which might or might not be a direct result of the mental & physical abuse his younger sister suffered from their mother as children: “Our mother used to use her arms as ashtrays”. A young woman, possibly a drug addict, with a tattooed face, is under suspicion and being sought for the hospital murders, but Waits also has his doubts about Frank Moore, the man whose wife & children were apparently murdered by Wick: Moore has now remarried, and has, somewhat improbably (although not impossible, of course) the same number & gender of children as he had previously, and now runs self-help courses, including for prisoners, after finding that Christianity was a way out of the slough of despond in which he had found himself when his life collapsed.

This is a very complicated plot, and the dénouement is somewhat ambiguous, but the primary reason for that is likely to be to allow for another book in the series, which is hardly surprising: it certainly isn’t a murder mystery in the Hercule Poirot or DCI Banks mould, notwithstanding that their plots can also be similarly tortuous. That said, it is worth sticking with, and I will be happy to read either or both of the earlier stories if I can encounter them; if only, as stated above, to provide some background to this highly flawed character.