This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor

The Missing and the Dead

Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins: £7.99; e-book £4.99)

This is the latest of Stuart MacBride’s highly successful crime novels set in north east Scotland, featuring Logan “Lazarus” McRae. A highly refreshing antidote to the maverick anti-authority stereotype, McRae tends to find himself trodden on regularly by those higher up the food chain, most often by the butch, aggressively gay (and whisper it, slightly overdone) Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel.

After an arrest of a sadistic abductor goes procedurally wrong, McRae is sent back into uniform, based in Banff. His targeting of a local drug dealer regularly incurs the wrath of one DCI McInnes, head of a major national investigation, while the spectre of Chief Superintendent Napier, seeking a scapegoat for the failed prosecution, is seldom far from the feast. Add to the mix the body of an unidentified girl, a grieving mother whose child it may or may not be, severed feet in the Clyde and a series of thefts of cash machines, and you have Sergeant McRae’s customary world of chaos. He is hampered more than assisted by DCI Steel, who wants him back on her team. I am a fan of MacBride’s books, though some of the more gory bits have to be read with one’s eyes shut. In a previous novel I really did not like the description of the baddies cutting off the journalist’s fingers after he had had them sewn on after they had cut them off the first time. Thankfully, the gore is (relatively) held in check, and there is a lot of humour. In addition to the main threads of the drama, there is great insight into the pressures and mundanities of small town police work, told sympathetically.

The pace is terrific: the ending highly satisfactory. Great stuff.


Piers Paul Read​​ (Bloomsbury: £16.99; e-book £10.79)

Baron Scarpia is the villain of Puccini’s opera, Tosca. The premise on which this excellent book is based is that the composer had a flawed view of the history of the time, giving Scarpia an undeserved bad name. Read has invented lives for both Scarpia and Tosca, setting them against the events and mores of Italy at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries. It was a fascinating period: Italy was divided into a number of states; notions of equality, liberty and fraternity were spreading from the breeding ground of France; Napoleon was flexing his muscles; Nelson was sailing the seas and dallying with Emma Hamilton. This is an absorbing book that engages and informs from the start. Read’s Scarpia is no saint but he is more steadfast and honourable than most, less cruel than many. He is also very brave, a professional soldier and faithful Catholic, a Sicilian who stands out from the decadent Romans. Much of the book reads like a work of history or biography. The author’s unfussy style works well, and his story smoothly weaves between historical fact and fiction, bringing out the moral and political issues that dominated the period. At the end of the book, the protagonists arrive at the church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, where the opera begins and the story becomes melodramatic, but now the characters are Read’s, not Puccini’s, so the tale is twisted. A stimulating and enjoyable book is brought to a fitting end.

False Nine

Philip Kerr (Head of Zeus: £14.99; e-book £4.80)

This is the third book in the Scott Manson series, the intrepid football manager turned sleuth. Manson finds himself looking for pastures new, and after a brief mistaken foray to Shanghai, finds himself being paid by his old club Barcelona to track down a player on loan from Paris St Germain who has gone missing. En route through the Caribbean he comes across corruption (in football? I hear you question), as well as uncovering life in that part of the world where so many players in the French league come from. The footballing detail is superb, and the description of time and place and the life of the über wealthy players a joy. Will he fess up to his numerous dalliances on return to his cop girlfriend? Another winner.

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