I stopped reading Christopher Brookmyre around the time of Where the Bodies are Buried, as from the publicity material, it seemed like the guy had given up writing funny, original crime capers and lapsed into MOR procedural crime – ‘the average detective novel’ as Chandler described it. (Check out the comparison between early and late Brookmyre covers, from Bent Spines, to see what I mean.) From 1996, the Scottish author had spun out complex and innovative stories featuring bizarre and elaborate plots and strange otherworldly characters. The Sacred Art of Stealing centred on a situationist bank heist, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks on a fraudulent but convincing psychic. The tabloid PR conspirator of Boiling a Frog engineers a new cultural puritanism to make money for himself and his corrupt bishop clients.
The only conventional thing about Brookmyre was his hero. Jack Parlabane is a wisecracking alpha male journalist who’s prepared to do almost anything to expose predatory execs and thieving politicians. In the early novels Brookmyre had him scaling impossible buildings and hacking into confidential files. Brookmyre told the Herald that ‘Jack was always a bit of a wish-fulfillment figure’ – and the author compensated for this by throwing Parlabane into more and more challenging situations: in one adventure, he’s thrown in prison, in another, shot at like a clay duck on a corporate paintball weekend turned murderous.
Jack begins Dead Girl Walking as a compromised shadow: with his unorthodox style of reportage tainted by phone hack related activities, of the Murdoch press and others, he has been cast out of the journalism game, and his marriage has collapsed. Not only has Parlabane been destroyed by Leveson, he’s also being hunted by the MoD, the security services and god knows who else, for another computer hack, into the laptop of a senior civil servant. When an old friend hires him to track down a missing rock star, it looks like the answer to his troubles. Heike Gunn, frontwoman of hit indie band Savage Earth Heart, has vanished, Richey Manic style, on the verge of a major US tour. Parlabane combs Europe and remote Scottish islands looking for her.
I needn’t have worried about Brookmyre’s change of pace. All the old irreverence and wit is there – and the same contemporary motifs: punk rock, comic books, video games, Edinburgh-Glesca rivalry, scepticism, gadgetry, magicianship and a healthy disregard for authority and power. It’s now allied to a new, streamlined and pacy style, the style of a writer in pole position (although Brookmyre can’t help relishing his powers of misdirection a little too much). Brookmyre also does not make the MOR writer’s mistake of treating his victim like a cardboard martyr: elusive singer Heike Gunn is a compelling and believable co-protagonist. Brookmyre is sometimes over earnest but there’s nothing po faced about his prose. The ending gives us a potential redemption for Parlabane, certainly a new adventure, and maybe for Brookmyre as well. As he told STV Glasgow: ‘Every year there are more Scottish writers and they’re more inclined to turn to crime fiction. I think we’re seeing a constant enriching of the body of work and I think we’ll see all sorts of highly imaginative variations.’