Today’s book review comes from team member Barb. She blogs at http://barbtaub.com/
Barb chose to read and review A Different Place to Die by RR Gall.
Here is Barb’s review.
How do you get a damaged detective? Of course, you start with Raymond Chandler’s advice: “A really good detective never gets married.” Then you balance every one of his (and yes, it’s usually a man) godlike intuitive abilities with a personality and/or medical flaw so overwhelming that their oracle-like abilities are wiped out by their shortcomings. Oh, and it helps if it’s really cold where they live. So you have Kurt Wallander in Sweden (wife left him/diabetic/borderline alcoholic/and—as if that’s not enough—Alzheimers), or Arkady Renko in Russia (politically cynical, chain-smoking, workaholic), or even the wizard detective Harry Dresden in Chicago (most of his girlfriends get mind-raped and he occasionally has to kill them).
Or you go straight for the holy grail of damaged… put the detective in Scotland like Rankin and the rest of the Tartain Noir writers do. Preferably in winter.
RR Gall takes this one step further in his new police procedural, A Different Place to Die. He splits the detective into two. Neither are married, both live in Scotland, and both are very damaged. One half is Inspector Tom Quiss, who has lost his nerve for hard crime and moved to head up the Glasgow Police Department’s newly formed civilian support group, which was downsized almost before it began. The other half is very young Shona Bally, one of his two civilian employees. Their assessment of each other is brutally pithy. “He thinks she is too young for the job. She thinks he is too old for the job. She wears too much make-up. He needs to comb his hair.” The appalled Quiss and delighted Shona are soon called in assist the overworked police with an apparent suicide, one with an unusual twist. An older couple have left a polite note and taken a horrific poison—after breaking into the house of complete strangers. As the unlikely duo attempt to identify the dead couple only to have each clue lead to new bodies, they find themselves in a race to prevent even more deaths.
A Different Place to Die should have so much going for it. The premise of two unlikeable and flawed characters forced to work together is good. But they were so initially unsympathetic that it was hard to maintain interest in either one for the length of time it took to establish backstories that would explain their issues. The book started slowly, with an extended description of Quiss’ obsession with lawn bowls, in which sport he fantasizes about representing Scotland in the next Commonwealth Games. There is just one problem. “But to represent Scotland, no matter the sport—what a dream, what an honour. The only thing is—Tom Quiss has never played an actual game of bowls in his life.” We are told very little about Shona, who is like Tom in that she seems to be emotionally frozen.
Quirky characterization can carry many books, and is especially helpful in mysteries. But ultimately, a mystery story lives or dies on the strength of its plot. Unfortunately, for me that is where A Different Place to Die is less successful. It’s difficult to talk about detective plots when you want to avoid spoilers. But the central mystery of why the deaths occurred in stranger’s houses is actually… not answered. Plot-wise, there just isn’t really a reason for it. Even more problematical is the list of plot holes that grows steadily. If there is one thing that detective fiction does need to do, it is to wrap those up at the end. So to have the final explanation be that there must be some far-reaching and high-level conspiracy is just not on.
Because of the quality of the writing and premise of the characters, I would stretch up to three stars for A Different Place to Die. But I’m frustrated because I think it could have been so much more. On a personal note, because I live in Glasgow I was disappointed that there wasn’t a more intimate look at the city. But I also would have liked more emotional connection with Quiss and Shona. For example, if these publicly unsympathetic characters had given us sympathetic glimpses into the reasons for their damage early on, it would have made it easier to take their persistently unpleasant bickering and fairly egregious nastiness. If the giant conspiracy is being seeded as backstory to a continuing series for this pair, then hints should have been dropped throughout the book. Or frankly—and I know this is Scotland but bear with me—if there had been a little comic relief from the unrelentingly depressing interactions between almost everyone in the entire book, it would have moved it to four or more stars immediately.