This was a book group choice when we were reading Scottish crime fiction. It is Campbell's first book and she has since written a second which includes some of the characters who are introduced in this story. I was a little off-put by the fact that the 'blurb' is a lengthy quotation from Mark Billingham, a crime writer whose work I have not particularly enjoyed. Would I still enjoy the story?
== The premise ==
Sergeant Anna Cameron moves jobs to head up a new unit and discovers that she has difficulties working with her new team, especially Jamie Worth, a man she dated during police training and who is now married to the woman he left her for. Meanwhile, crime is happening in Glasgow. An old man is killed, possibly by a burglar, and prostitutes are being attacked, their faces carved up in increasingly violent attacks. Can Anna solve these crimes while handling the tensions within her own team?
== My thoughts ==
To be honest, I didn't find the initial premise particularly interesting, especially as the focus seemed to be more on the relationships between the police than on the crimes themselves. I prefer crime stories which are built around interesting crimes and where the focus is on solving the crime. From that perspective, I found this a disappointing read. The story itself does not seem to be particularly important to the publishers as the inside cover primarily focuses on the relationships developed in the story. Similarly, rather than referring primarily to plot, the blurb focuses on atmosphere and characterisation. This sets the tone well for the book itself, which, to me, was never really about the crime, but was about Anna, Jamie and his wife, Cath.
From the beginning, there was such a strong focus on relationships that the crimes felt like a series of background events. We see Anna try to settle into her new office, get on badly with her superior and her inferiors, be stunned by the news she will be working with her ex (this bit of text would work well in a Mills and Boon or similar romance novel) and begin to develop familiarity with the local area. I might not have minded this focus on relationships so much if I liked any of the characters. However, I found all three central characters unsympathetic and the supporting characters underdeveloped. Anna bitches, Jamie backstabs and Cath whinges. I could not warm to any of them and therefore did not care what happened to them.
The actual crimes that are the background to the book are introduced casually and developed at intervals, in-between power-plays, flirting and moping. Police work seems to mostly consist of gathering gossip from other prostitutes and training newcomers in how to complete the requisite paperwork. Before turning her hand to writing Campbell was a police officer in Glasgow, so presumably this is a fairly true to life depiction of crime detection, but I would have preferred more 'investigation' to be happening. I think if the author removed all the relationship material then this would be a very short book indeed.
Some chapters focus on Cath's perspective, which initially seemed a little odd as she is no longer a police officer but is a stay-at-home mum. The reader experiences her intense frustration as Jamie fails to appreciate how hard she works as a mother and a housewife. She also reflects upon their unsatisfactory sex life and seems unable to stop herself snapping at her husband. However, as the book develops she becomes involved in the investigation and the chapters which focus on her seem more justified. That said, I found the relationship which develops between her and Anna to be bizarre and unconvincing. Similarly, I couldn't work out whether Jamie was really interested in Anna or simply fed up with Cath, as he seems to alternately treat his new boss with an intimacy that is inappropriate given their ten year silence and a scathing dislike. I found most developments in their relationships confusing and therefore irritating.
Some readers have suggested that Glasgow is so well painted here that it becomes almost another character in the story. I did find some of the early passages describing Glasgow quite evocative, but I certainly didn't feel that I gained a real feel for the place. Possibly, some readers found that the use of Scots vernacular ('neds' and 'hoors') helped to create a strong sense of place. This didn't really have much of an impact on me but I think it does help to create a certain sense of place.
The story concludes in a way that is completely fitting to what has gone before: the crimes are briefly resolved and relationships are the main focus, including Anna's relationship with the old man who was beaten to death. The 'villain' who has been attacking the women is so irrelevant to the story that I still have no clear picture of who he was or what his motivation was. I think that this was a suitable ending to a story that had really been about people and the horrible ways they treat each other, rather than about crime.
Obviously, prostitution is a key theme. Early on a police officer states that it simply isn't possible to arrest all the women at once, so they have a 'kind of rota' that means the women are able to earn enough to pay their regular fines. I realise that responding to this type of crime is difficult, and throughout the book the police try to get the women to help themselves, but I would have liked a stronger sense of resolution at the end. Maybe no one is going to cut up their faces anymore, but they are still very vulnerable. Again, I suppose this is a realistic ending.
Finally, the written style is interesting in that, when writing from a character's viewpoint, Campbell writes in non-standard sentences which seem designed to reflect exactly what the character is thinking, even though the narration is written in the third person throughout. I thought this was quite a nice touch which helped to create a sense of realism and allowed the reader to really grasp the character's perspective.
== Conclusions ==
You've probably realised by now that I won't be reading this again - or the next in the series, which focuses on Jamie ending up in prison. I was disappointed in this as I was hoping to read a police procedural but ended up reading what I would categorise more as a gritty episode of a soap opera. All the focus was on the relationships between the characters, which would possibly have mattered less if they had been less unpleasant. I certainly wouldn't spend £12.99 (RRP) on the hardback version of this and am glad I borrowed it free from my local library.
However, I recognise that my voice seems to be a dissenting one: many readers on Amazon and elsewhere seem to have absolutely loved this. According to the front cover, Kate Atkinson loved it and felt that 'the plot fairly whizzes along'. If you like your crime to be subsumed by the misery of difficult relationships and stroppy work colleagues then you should definitely give this a go. It has been described as atmospheric, but I didn't really get a feel for anything other than misery and discomfort for 339 pages. On the plus side, chapters are reasonably short and broken into sections, which mean that it is very easy to find a stopping point when reading. If I haven't entirely put you off, I would suggest borrowing rather than buying to see if the author's style appeals to you.