25 January 2016

Review: Black Widow by Christopher Brookmyre

Black Widow
Chris Broomyre
Little, Brown Jan 2016
HB, 422pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

This is a gripping, twisty crime novel featuring Brookmyre's journalist hero, Jack Parlabane.

Parlabane has fallen a long way since his glory days. The victim of a shady sting a couple of stories ago, he's not scratching a living in a borrowed flat, scraping together "content" for websites.

And his wife Sarah is now hie ex-wife.

So he jumps at the chance to "get back in the game" when a young woman, Lucy, knocks on his door one morning. Lucy is worried about her brother Peter who "seems" to have died in a car "accident" outside Inverness. "Seems", because no body was ever found: "accident" because Lucy clearly has suspicions about Peter's new wife, Diana.

The story, framed around the proceedings of a trial, is told largely through the voice of Diana and third person narratives following Parlabane and Ali, an Inverness police officer. Diana is a doctor, a surgeon, who's run into trouble before (she wrote an anonymous blog about work-life balance and sexism in the hospital but it was hacked an her identity exposed) but then found happiness in a whirlwind romance with Peter. She doesn't, though, suffer fools - or those who cross her - gladly. And as becomes clear, her life with Peter crumbled very quickly.

Brookmyre has a good line in observation as, especially, he describes Diana's earlier troubles, whether the specific instances of outrageous behaviour highlighted in her blog or the awful harassment she suffered after her identity was exposed. (He even works in Lewis's Law - the observation that the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism).

He can also string together a plot well, producing a near perfect blend of suspense, surprise and tension. This is where reviewing Black Widow becomes frustrating. I'm normally a bit hard-hearted about spoilers, but this really is one book whose secrets you need NOT to know before you read it. As I turned the pages I felt a real sense of dread at what might be going to happen, and was sorely tempted to check the end just to see how things turned out: don't do that. Just don't.

That sense of dread was all bound up with what might happen to Diana. She's not a conventionally sympathetic character, and even as you learn more about her from her own narrative you may not warm to her, but I think you will care about her, given what she's already been through and how the first chapter opens, narrated from the dock as the trial opens.

When you finish the book I guarantee you'll revisit that first chapter, to see how it lines up with how things turned out. Brookmyre has a startling ability to put things in place that make perfect sense on first reading but which gain a whole new significance in hindsight. The same skill shows up in a slightly different form where he lets a character's private words or actions, made public in the courtroom or on the Web, accuse them in a way never intended. The book shows the consequences of lies and deceit.

It's Parlabane, the discredited journalist with his shady methods who is left to find the answers - even if they come at some cost.

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