You may think you know all there is to know about Tartan noir, but there is still tremendous appetite for crime fiction set in Scotland. So what can a debut novelist bring to the table that’s new and different from all of the successful authors out there, like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina or Stuart MacBride? Black humour is a good start, as is a good sense of place, and Claire MacLeary’s novel has both in spades, but what makes it stand out are the two central characters: middle-aged women who become professional investigators.
Maggie Laird is a devoted mother and wife, recently widowed, slightly nervous and uptight. Her neighbour, Wilma Harcus, is larger than life, loud and has quite a bit of clout in the local community but is fundamentally a good egg. This mismatched but likeable pair of amateur women investigators might remind you of Dominique Sylvain’s Lola and Ingrid. Their interactions have all the down-to-earth feistiness of Happy Valley’s besieged sergeant Catherine and her colleagues, and may blossom into something to rival the female friendship of Scott and Bailey. The setting is even further north, in Aberdeen, with a strong hint of the regional accent.
Maggie’s husband used to be a cop but has been forced out of the police following an accusation of corruption. He has just died unexpectedly in his run-down private investigation agency, leaving Maggie financially and emotionally insecure. With some prodding from Wilma, she finally decides to carry on the work of the agency herself, and learns much about investigative techniques and the criminal underbelly of Aberdeen in the process. She also learns a lot about herself, and sets out to clear her husband’s name and find out if he died of natural causes.
In her former life, Maggie worked part-time as a classroom assistant. Her concern for the young people in her charge plunges her into another investigation about drug dealing in a sink estate and the suspicious death of a student in a graveyard. All the different stories merge together in an unflinching, often funny and yet ultimately tender portrayal of life on the margins of society, complete with undeclared income from illegal child-minding, day-time drinking and youngsters exposed far too soon to drugs and porn.
Lest this should sound too gritty, the author herself describes her work as closer to the cosy side of the crime spectrum. We are certainly never given lengthy descriptions of gory cadavers, and most of the crime seems to be petty or unspecified. However, the warts and all portrayal of working-class life in Aberdeen brings plenty of realism to this cosy. It might just launch a new kind of crime subgenre, for which some of us have been waiting for some time now: ‘cosy with bite’.
Cross Purpose is a lively debut, with a fresh, different vibe to it compared to the plethora of cookie-cutter police procedurals or domestic noirs which seem to have become the norm of late. This has the potential to become a rather promising crime series and perhaps even make it to the small screen.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars