Shadow Man - Margaret Kirk
Shadow Man - Margaret Kirk ****
Shadow Man is a fairly standard police crime thriller although it's a little bit better than most in as far as it provides a intriguing mystery and doesn't cheat the reader with either a ridiculously over-the-top or an underwhelming ending. There are one or two other points of interest that give Margaret Kirk's debut thriller a little more of an edge and some originality, principally being that it is set in Inverness around the time of the Scottish referendum.
There are certainly divisions and divided loyalties expressed within families in Shadow Man, as well as some historical consideration of the nature of being Scottish, but it has to be said that this aspect remains largely in the background, and a first glance it doesn't seem to have anything at all to do with the murder of Morvern Murray, a high-flying local TV celebrity who has been brutally eviscerated in her hotel room on the eve of her wedding.
Social and professional rivalries look like being more of an issue here, thinks detective Lukas Mahler, with Morvern's estranged sister Anna having arrived over from America and meeting up with Jamie, a historian and novelist who has also been invited to the wedding. Her fiance Ross Campbell would appear to have business and money problems, and alcohol problems too, but none of them seem to have sufficient grounds to want Morvern dead, much less appear capable of carrying out such a brutal and calculated act of murder.
The technical whodunit aspect of Shadow Man is well laid out in this regard. It could be anyone, but at the same time, there's nothing that definitively hints at even a single obvious suspect. Well, there is one, but too obvious and even that is complicated by a lot of other factors that just don't fit together, such as what looks like the gangland killing of a small time crook occurring around the same time. Maybe it's not connected, or maybe this is a bigger matter than Mahler thinks. Certainly, what he learns in his investigation about Morvern's brusque manner and way of slighting people suggests that there are quite a few people in the television industry who might hold a grudge against her.
Then there's the 2014 setting of the book with the Scottish independence referendum bubbling in the background. I expected that there might be a little more made of this, but it doesn't appear to have any direct relevance to the case. What it does provide is a heightened sense of the social divisions that exist in this part of the world, with high-flying academics and their professional rivalry on one side, and on the other the inhabitants of social housing complexes struggling with money, alcohol and drug problems. There's even some historical references to the injustice of tenants being removed from their homes in the Clearances of the mid-nineteenth century in a documentary that Jamie is working on and hopes to involve Anna in.
All of this however is really just local colour and doesn't play as much of a part in the investigation as you think it might. Likewise the private life and circumstances of Lukas Mahler aren't yet entirely established. There are a few hints of his background, his experience building up a career as a police detective in London, and reasons why he neglects his family life for the distraction that work brings. At this stage however he's only sketched in, as if the author is trying to avoid falling into routine crime thriller police detective traits and leaving time for more personality to develop. Certainly the professional rivalries and strained working relationships with other police colleagues are quite familiar, albeit in a different provincial town context.
The potential is there however and we do indeed find ourselves warming to a very human Lukas Mahler by the time the case is concluded. The resolution of the case of the killer of Morvern Murray is also thrillingly handled, although it does involve the unfortunate loss of a phone signal and some grandstanding villain moments where they explain their motivations and the elaborate manner in which they are going to kill their next victim that gives them time to escape. The writing and characterisation is so well handled however that it's hard to be disappointed by this, even when the author leaves a few loose threads hanging around to be picked up again in the next DI Lukas Mahler book. Based on Shadow Man however, there's clearly great potential for a new Scottish detective working within the social backdrop of Inverness.
Shadow Man by Margaret Kirk is published by Orion on 2nd November 2017