Review: Bad Memory

Lisa Gray – Bad Memory

Thomas & Mercer paperback, £8.99. I bought this new.

The path from journalist to novelist is a well-worn one, and for good reason – the love of and a confidence in the use of words, the discipline of writing to a deadline and the familiarity of being edited are staples of the first and easily transferred to the second. There’s an old saw that every journalist has a half-written novel in a drawer, and while I’m not sure we all do, I know plenty who have dabbled – and from Bill Bryson to Chris Brookmyre there are many who’ve successfully made the jump in many genres. Now Lisa Gray has joined them, with her first novel, Thin Air, garnering plenty of praise, including from Ian Rankin. Now Bad Memory, the second in the Jessica Shaw series, has been longlisted for the 2020 McIlvanney Prize.

Her Glasgow home is a long way from Jessica’s California, but Gray has done her research and I can feel the desert heat and see the glint of light as the sun catches the Airstream trailer Jessica calls home. Gray’s journalism background is also evident from the start; there’s not a wasted word, yet there’s description enough that we hear the echo of the screams as Rue Hunter experiences her recurring nightmare and feel the concrete floor of her prison cell.

Rue has been in jail for 30 years, since she was a teenager, after her best friend and her boyfriend were stabbed to death and the murder weapon – along with a dress drenched in blood – were found in her bedroom. Rue doesn’t remember what happened that night; the justice system isn’t bothered by this, it was happy to make do with the damning circumstantial evidence.

Now, ten days before Rue is scheduled to be executed, her sister Rose turns up at the private investigator’s office in the small town where Jessica works – the same town Rue and Rose grew up in, and where the murders happened – asking for help in re-examining the case. Jessica has no qualms in taking it on whichever way the evidence points, though many of the townsfolk aren’t too happy about her poking around asking questions.

We flip between Jessica’s investigation now and the mid-1980s when the three teens were inseparable, and we get a hint of how the case unfolded after two of them died. There’s a careful drip feed of information as Jessica finds out more, and some flashbacks that fill in the blanks for the reader while our PI painstakingly pieces things together. We share her growing engagement with the case, and her horror as she closes in on the truth towards the end of the novel.

We also get enough glimpses into Jessica’s personal life that, put together with how she works, and how she treats people she works with and for, makes us warm to her even if there’s a definite barrier between her and us – just like the one she keeps between herself and those who try to get close to her in the novel. In one way it’s a cliche to have a strong woman character made vulnerable by a difficult past, but Gray is careful not to dwell on the latter and prefers to show the former without resorting to tricksy gunplay or flashy martial arts moves in unlikely action sequences (though the final showdown is pretty full-on). Jessica is influenced by her past, and trying to concentrate on dealing with the present as best she can while hoping for a better future, just like the rest of us.

Corruption. Lies. Secrets. You might think you’ve buried them, but like flowers after desert rain, they’ll pop up of their own accord. Jessica is the kind of person who wants to help those little flowers bloom to their fullest and ain’t nobody going to stop her. I’m cheering her on every step of the way.

Follow the author on Twitter @lisagraywriter

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