Black Widow - Chris Brookmyre
I used to like it when Christopher Brookmyre had a bee in his bonnet about one thing or another. You'd get scathing attacks on the pillars of the establishment in between all the gunfire, explosions and comic terrorist mayhem of his earlier novels. Just as he has moved away from the high bodycount messiness of that limited and repetitive plots, you'd still get glimpses in more recent books of the author's raging contempt for the gutter press, his cynicism for new age spiritualism, his disdain for middle-class complacency, and his hatred for crooked politicians - or just all politicians really. But as his writing took on more of a 'conventional' turn, straying into science-fiction, gaming fantasy and more mainstream crime, it was becoming increasingly evident that Brookmyre of late has definitely lost his edge.
Black Widow is however a Jack Parlabane novel, so we're back in the crime genre field, with an investigative journalist who has a rather scathing and cynical attitude towards, criminals and politicians, particularly in how it fits in with the Scottish worldview. And even though the person at the centre of this particular criminal case is an eminent or once eminent surgeon rather than the typical small-time Glaswegian ned criminal, there's still plenty of scope for the author to explore divisions in Scottish society. Until her cover was blown, Diana Jager was an anonymous blogger known as Scalpelgirl, although her notorious airing of outspoken views on colleagues, on working practices and on sexism in the NHS earned her the nickname of Bladebitch.
Glimpses however, are all we get of Bladebitch's blogging revelations in Black Widow, and there's evidently more to the case in this crime novel than just uncovering who hacked her account and brought her name into the public domain. In the post-Leveson age such matters are hardly news, even though - although you might not have noticed it - the press are now supposedly more restrained in their activities. Even Parlabane "wasn't annoying anybody these days" Brookmyre concedes at one point in Black Widow, although I think the author is far too trusting and accepting when he would have been rather more cynical about this in the past. But no, the new mainstream-friendly Chris Brookmyre isn't annoying anyone either. He has other targets in his sights, and in the case of Black Widow, it doesn't seem to be any more ambitious than giving us another Gone Girl.
The surgeon, Diana Jager, formerly the notorious blogger Bladebitch, is suspected of having murdered her husband, Peter Elphinstone, an IT developer at the hospital where Jager works. In between the investigations of Parlabane and the police as to how Peter's car came off the road at a dangerous spot and ended up in a river with the body washed away, Diana recounts the somewhat hasty marriage and subsequent revelations about Peter's family background. The marriage was evidently in trouble, Peter behaving suspiciously, cagy about his wealthy and influential family, working late and secretively on a potentially lucrative development project, and possibly having an affair behind her back. Diana's whole marriage seems to have been built on a lie, and Parlabane and the police aren't long in identifying motives and suspicion that all point to her guilt.
Except there isn't a body, which as anyone who reads crime fiction knows, raises a red flag immediately. What matters, as in the case of Gone Girl, is how inventively you can play with the genre conventions and whether you can explore other interesting avenues of human behaviour and social issues at the same time. Even though he has lost his distinctive voice over the years Brookmyre is a good writer, so as opportunistic as it might be in seeking a wider popular audience, Black Widow is just as strong a crime thriller as most mainstream fiction out there. Post-Leveson Parlabane still has computer tools to play around with, but these aren't quite as exciting tools to work with, and the reporter is relegated to the background for most of Black Widow. That doesn't seem to matter too much, as Brookmyre puts his own spin on a number of intriguing characters involved in a plot that seems to have plenty of intrigue beneath the surface.
Whether you find the final revelations of Black Widow disappointing or credible, what matters is that Brookmyre wraps up things well after keeping the reader involved all the way through (which is more than I can say for his gaming fantasy, Bedlam), even if it is somewhat generic for this author. The obligatory final twists and revelations have an air of Iain (non-M) Banks about them however, and while it's true that Brookmyre makes the plot his own enough to avoid direct comparisons, it's still a pale shadow of Gone Girl. We can forgive Chris Brookmyre for not being Gillian Flynn, but not for not being Christopher Brookmyre. I believe terrorist plots and mayhem are all the rage these days, but sadly I can't imagine the new-improved-recipe Brookmyre going back there again.
Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre is published by Little Brown on 28th January 2016