hbk out August 99
Published by Macmillan
There's a lot to be said for the good, old-fashioned crime story, steering firmly clear of the schools of 'How noir can you get?' and 'How cool can you chill?' In this story of murder, fraud and the training of sporting dogs you get no attempts to show life as worse than on the whole it is, and smart sex is forgotten in favour of an occasional acknowledgement that people go to bed together.
But you are very seldom, if at all, made to feel that the events described are not likely, possible ones. This atmosphere of good-hearted everyday life comes from the setting, a kennels in north-east Fife, and from the hero, the detective if you Like, John Cunningham. He is a man Gerald Hammond has given us before, the owner of the kennels, still suffering from injuries that invalided him out of the Army. A good move, his disabilities. They allow him to be simultaneously heroic and deprived of the gung-ho fighting abilities of your average thriller hero. So in the book you have a minimum of derring-do, a likely minimum.
But Gerald Hammond has yet more what you might call de-mystifying factors to his writing bow. First, there is the presence all through the book of the Cunningham's schoolboy son. But he is not used for any tug-at-heartstrings getting into danger. Quite the opposite. When murder and its motives are being talked about young Sam is pushed off to bed. As in the sort of life you and I lead he would be. It adds strongly to the decent credibility.
As effective in creating a world where things can be pleasant as well as occasionally murderous is the presence of the kennels' dogs, almost as varied in character as the humans. One of them, and by no means the most heroic, sniffs out a vital clue. But others are less praiseworthy, like the German short-haired pointer with 'the regrettable habit of peeing on its retrieves'. Well, I didn't know that was something that happened; I didn't even know what you called a retrieve. But I am rather pleased now to have the information tucked away. Allowing you to learn odd facts is one of the things crime fiction does well. It appeals to one' a sense of curiosity, one of the great driving forces of life (Indeed, I once devoted a whole crime novel, called Asking Questions, to that very instinct). And, of course, it is John Cunningham's curiosity that at a fair clip drives this book along.
All the while, though, as you want to know who done it and, above all, why some intruder stole the body of a dead dog (Good answer in the end) you get those little details of Scots life that make you feel it's all real. One example: A grutchety farmer is speaking 'She drives the way an old woman butters a scene. Very fiddly and not caring how long it takes.' That's real life. That's the crusty bread feeling.