Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hand for a Hand

Yeeeeow, rip it, dude!*  The nonstop intensity of T. Frank Muir's Hand for a Hand (Soho Crime, 2012) was quite the antidote to the pokey pace of Murder at Cape Three Points.  This isn't one of those dreadful, each-chapter-ends-with-a-cliffhanger type of stories, just one that doesn't waste a lot of time getting to the point.

I'm clearly falling apart - here is yet another series that I failed to start at the beginning, although I was pretty sure I had it in hand, so to speak.  Our Hero is DCI Andy Gilchrist, of the St. Andrews, Scotland, police force.  Yes, that St. Andrews, of Wills-and-Kate-at-uni fame, also the birthplace of golf as we know it.  The latter figures prominently here, with female body parts showing up in features of the Old Course.  The tricky bit is that the clues are addressed to Gilchrist, and with each finding gruesomer than the last, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that some rather nasty types have it in for him personally.  It is not giving much away to reveal that the first victim is his son's girlfriend and the second may be his own daughter.  Gilchrist has the typical hard-working-detective lack of solid relationship with his children, upon which not too much time is wasted, fortunately.  I hate when emotions start to muck things up, although even hard-hearted me thinks the son got over his girlfriend pretty easily.  There's also Gilchrist's dying ex-wife, who, while giving him something to fret about, kind of drops out of the picture toward the end. We don't even know if she is still in the picture at the end of the book!

The first body part appears on p. 2, and by p. 5, we know that Gilchrist is the killer's target.  Part deux shows up on p. 26, and, well, there are a few more to come.  It's a wee bit of a leap of faith as to how Gilchrist starts to focus on his son's girlfriend as a possible victim, but the tale of the killer is spun out pretty well over the course of the next couple hundred pages, which is maybe a week or so?

This is not prose of the highest order but neither is it crap.  It's really writing that doesn't get in the way, which is to be commended when you've got a fast-moving tale - you don't want to take the time to savor it, really.  Although I'll always take my time with just about anything set in the UK.  Not surprisingly, whisky is involved, as well as plenty of pints in atmospheric pubs.  I couldn't really get a visual on St. Andrews beyond the golf parts, but it rains a lot in Scotland, in case you didn't know.  There is pretty much always a mist or a drizzle or damp, and always a wind blowing - we are by the sea, after all.

Don't be misled into thinking that this is a cheap thriller, because there is intelligence at work here.  I don't read a lot of cheap thrillers (I think), but I'm guessing most don't involve psychopaths who can quote deep tracks from Robert Burns. "To a Haggis" takes on a whole new meaning when the bad guy quotes "His knife see rustic Labour dight, an' cut you up wi ready slight, trenching your gushing entrails bright."  (210)  Burns aficionados might say that the haggis bit is like quoting from "Paul Revere's Ride" and thinking yourself quite the critic, but there's lots more where that comes from.  And, I learned a splendid new word:  HORRIPILATION, which is just what it sounds like - when the hairs on your arm stand up from fear (or cold, but coldipilation doesn't work as well, does it?)

Part of the challenge of reading international crime fiction is that sometimes it is published in in the home country first, then comes to the US - and not always in precisely the same order.  In any case, I look forward to going back (to the OK-I-get-it named Eye for an Eye) and forth with DCI Gilchrist in rainy, scotchy St. Andrews.

*See this entry on The Right People Travel for the story behind this cryptically tantalizing opening.

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