Dundee probably isn’t the first place which springs to mind when you think of hardboiled PI fiction but over the last few years Russel D McLean has made the city his own, first with the Sam Bryson stories, and latterly with his J McNee series. The first two instalments, The Good Son and The Lost Sister, were intense, character-driven novels focussed on the emotional cost of crime on those involved, and the grey areas negotiated by the professionals who investigate it. Both books were brilliant. But McLean left some loose ends hanging, tantalisingly, and Father Confessor is where they finally get tied off.
The book opens with the murder of DCI Ernie Bright, father of McNee’s copper girlfriend Susan, and a man with whom he shares a complicated history. Ernie was his mentor and champion when McNee joined the police but their relationship soured over the years. There is a whiff of corruption around Ernie, sanctioned from on high, but still it doesn’t sit well with McNee, who suspects him of being more deeply involved with Dundee’s criminal elite than the job demanded.
Meanwhile, Susan is suspended from duty as her actions at the end of the previous book, The Good Sister, are investigated. With her career hanging in the balance this new development is more than she can handle. McNee and Susan are together, but tentatively, still testing each others boundaries, and even if he can’t give her the emotional support she needs he can do something more tangible – find out who was responsible for her father’s death.
Help comes from an unexpected direction when David Burns, Dundee’s gangster number one, arrives at McNee’s place offering to pay whatever it takes to get to the bottom of Bright’s death. Burns isn’t the kind of man McNee wants to be indebted to though, so he sticks to his principles, refuses the money, and continues under his own steam, digging into the parts of Bright’s life which he worked so hard to keep hidden. But when McNee is handed a nasty beating it’s Burns’ men who pick him up and he realises that, personal distaste and professional ethics aside, the aging kingpin might be the only person who can lead him to Bright’s killer.
Father Confessor is another outstanding piece of work by Russel McLean, written in his usual pared back, punchy style. The plot rattles along at an irresistible pace, dragging the reader into the vicious machinations of powerful men from both sides of the law. The tone is introspective, this is a book of reckonings afterall, and McLean has a fine eye for the small acts of betrayal which can ruin lives – support not given at the vital moment, expectations not reached. McNee’s world is one where secrets eat into people like cancer and accepting comfort is akin to weakness. Across the series he has evolved into a complex, contradictory character, with a full complement of demons, and even if a few of them are laid to rest this time out, there’s enough darkness in him to run a good while yet.
If you’ve read the other McNee books then Father Confessor is going to be must, but it’s perfectly enjoyable as a standalone too and is a great introduction to McLean’s work. It’s also only £1.99 on Kindle right now.