Friday, 7 August 2009

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre

It’s a while since I read a book by this author. When his first novel – Quite Ugly One Morning - came out, my son passed it on to me, saying that it was black and funny and edgy, and I enjoyed it, with the odd reservation. Later, it was made into a TV series, with James Nesbitt in the role of Jack Parlabane, and again, I thought it worked well, but I didn’t feel a great deal of inclination to read any more of what I think turned into a series involving the same investigative journalist. The other week in the library I thought I might give him another try, and chose what seemed to be a standalone book with a very long title.

The opening was excellent – simply two voices discussing, in somewhat hapless fashion, what on earth they are going to do with a couple of bodies. You get the impression that they probably aren’t responsible but have somehow been lumbered with the bodies to dispose of, but it’s not clear, although when one of the two is later arrested by the police (or rather, the polis, since almost all the dialogue is written in Scots of what may be varying opacity) he denies responsibility for the murder, and demands that an old school friend, now a corporate lawyer, is sent for. Thereafter, the book alternates between the police investigation, under the direction of another contemporary from school, and the past, starting with the first day at primary school for a disparate bunch of children. It’s a significant day for all of them, establishing the beginnings of friendships and enmities that will re-emerge twenty years later.

Although much of the black and scabrous humour appealed to me, I did find the pace lagging. This may be because, although I found the adult characters amusing, the school episodes – accurate to a fault - reminded me much too painfully of my own schooldays in a small Highland town, where an English accent ensured your permanent alienation from the rest of the human race. Not to mention the shock of outside lavatories and the dread of the “belt”, a peculiarly vicious instrument of torture - boys vied with each other to be punished in order to prove how hard they were, and in Brookmyre’s enlightened school it wasn’t used to punish girls, apparently, but my schooldays were longer ago and corporal punishment was inflicted on girls as young as six. Anyway, Brookmyre gets the mix of sadistic teachers and mindless cruelty amongst children – funny though individual situations may be – about right, and I found it heavy going.

The children themselves were somewhat lacking in characterisation – I found it hard to tell the small boys apart, especially once they had all gained nicknames. Also, there’s not much detective work, the necessary process being that of remembering, and the wrapping up at the end is perhaps just a little too disingenuous, although the histories of the various children did succeed in coalescing into a whole. There is a glossary (!) for those who need it, and many words will be evident from context – if in doubt, assume the meaning is scatological and you won’t go far wrong. And if that’s something you object to, then I’d steer clear of this author altogether. Otherwise, it's okay, and I wouldn't entirely rule out reading another.


  1. I tried one of Brookmyre's books a couple of years ago (I can't remember which one, which says something in itself) and couldn't get into it at all. Since then I've just passed them by. Is it worth my trying again, do you think? Or should I save my energies for other writers?

  2. If you've already tried and got nowhere, I'd give them a miss. Having grown up with that black Scottish humour, I can find it reasonably amusing, but it can get very repetitive in its preoccupations. And there's lots of good writing to choose from!