Craig Robertson just keeps getting better, which is some achievement when you consider that his first novel, Random, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger and hit the Sunday Times bestseller list. He has made Glasgow’s mean streets his own and built a strong ensemble cast, led by the no nonsense DS Rachel Narey and scenes of crime photographer Tony Winter, who plays a central role this time round.
A young woman is found dead in Glasgow’s Northern Necropolis, raped, strangled and carefully laid out across a tomb with the word ‘SIN’ written across her body in red lipstick. When a second woman is killed the next day Narey and her team realise they have a serial murderer on their hands. Which would be bad enough, but Winters uncle and ex-copper Danny Neilson believes the case is even more complex than that.
During the 1970s Danny worked the infamous ‘Red Silk’ murders, a case which gripped and terrified the city of Glasgow as several women were murdered in quick succession without the police ever managing to catch their killer. And these recent deaths exhibit links to the historical case which no copycat could know. But the man suspected back then is locked up, serving multiple life sentences for a string of murders and can’t be responsible, despite the similarities. Archibald Atto is a psychopath who has tortured his victims families for years, refusing to reveal the location of their bodies or the full extent of his crimes, playing with them and the prison authorities and the police for his own amusement. Atto craves attention though and, worryingly for Winter, when the two men meet he seems to believe he’s found a kindred spirit.
As Narey and her comrades chase down leads on the street Winter is drawn into an mental chess match with Atto. They know he has information about the killer but he won’t give it up easily, not without extracting something from Winter in return; an audience, a sympathetic ear, an admission that the thrill Winter feels in photographing the dead isn’t so different to the one Atto feels at killing? No matter how repulsed he is by their encounters the police need Atto and Winter will be forced to confront his own darkest impulses if the murderer is to be caught.
Through dual narratives, one following Danny Neilson and the original Red Silk case during the 1970s and the other the contemporary investigation, Robertson skilfully creates a sense of emotional involvement with the murders as well as a breathless pace which had me whipping through the pages. The team is growing with each book and dynamics becoming more involved; there are some great exchanges between Winter and the gloriously foul-mouthed DI Addison which are a real joy to read, while the relationship between Winter and Narey continues on its complicated way. The scenes with Archibald Atto are the most compelling in the book though, recalling the Starling/Lecter meetings, but with an added frisson created by Winter’s own almost-deviant psychology.
Last year I raved about Cold Grave but Craig Robertson has surpassed himself with Witness the Dead, a perfectly constructed police procedural with real psychological depth.