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It's an unusual crime novel these days that has me guessing until the very end so it was a rare pleasure to read Caro Ramsay's "Singing to the Dead" and find a plot stuffed to the limit with twists and turns and characters I found genuinely engaging and wanted to know more about.
While Christmas is supposed to be a time of goodwill to all, the arrival of a new boss in Glasgow's Partickhill police station divides the already depleted team. Just when everyone is thinking of winding down, a series of investigations stretch the officers to the limit. The apparently straightforward death of a pensioner in an accidental house fire turns out to be something much more serious and threatens to overshadow the disappearance of two young boys in separate incidents.
Local lad made good, ageing rockstar Rogan O'Neill, back in Scotland to buy a country pile, offers a reward for information leading to the safe return of the boys in spite of advice from the police that they would rather he didn't. O'Neill, however, makes his gesture, leading officers to suspect he may have ulterior motives. When one of the investigations has a personal impact on one of the team, it's time to put differences aside and work together in a race against time.
"Singing to the Dead" ought not to work as well as it does. The plot is incredibly complex with lots of different threads yet they combine beautifully by the end like an elaborate Celtic knot. This is a great read for armchair sleuths: there are lots of surprising turns and dead ends and plenty of clues to pick up along the way. At first I thought there were too many subplots but the expert weaving of the threads was magnificent.
The narrative moves at a good pace between the threads, not so quickly that it's confusing but at a brisk pace that persuades you to read at least another chapter when time says you should really be putting the light out. With nothing to clearly distinguish the good guys from the miscreants this is a real mental work out as you continually reassess your thoughts on the characters as the story comes together.
The cast list, too, seemed excessive and the large number of characters was further complicated by the demands of the plot: the two missing boys and their mothers are so similar that I had to keep flicking back to remind myself which mother belonged to which boy. A pair of warring sisters also had me confused for the first few chapters in which they appear. On the other hand, the police officers were brilliantly drawn characters and it wasn't only the two or three main detectives that were fleshed out but a whole team. This enhanced the story and raised the dramatic tension as personalities clashed and the squabbles threatened to harm the investigations.
It's interesting that there isn't one clear chief character; in fact any number of the officers could take the main focus which could be a useful way of keeping future episodes of the series fresh and exciting. On the down-side, the character of Rogan O'Neill didn't work at all; he was supposed to be this incredible star who set female hearts a flutter yet I couldn't see why this might be and he comes across about as rock'n' roll as Sunday tea with your grandma.
While the mechanics of the thriller element worked perfectly the novel is lacking in terms of atmosphere and a general feeling of credibility. The police station with its sparring characters and gallows humour was well done and gave a contemporary feel which I thought was lacking elsewhere. Despite frequent mentions of mobile phones and the Internet, I detected a very dated feel that made the contrast between the police station and the outside world a little stark. Some of the descriptions were lacklustre and didn't capture Glasgow's grittiness and the squalor of some of the poorer areas, something fellow Scot Stuart MacBride does with great skill in the thrillers he sets in Aberdeen.
As a stand alone novel this is a good many pages longer than it needs to be as the character development of the police officers does form a sizeable chunk of the 528 pages. However, I did find those characters interesting and engaging and I would certainly look out for the next in what is clearly going to be an enduring series. The strength of the crime element is more than enough to make this an appealing thriller and a book that will get amateur sleuths working overtime.
This is an amended version of my review that first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk