Douglas Skelton – The Blood Is Still
Published by Polygon Books, paperback £8.99. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes.
I had the pleasure of reviewing Douglas Skelton’s last novel, Thunder Bay, for The Scotsman, which allowed me to shout to a wide audience about the absolute triumph it was. The style, setting and central character of young journalist Rebecca Connolly were all a departure from previous novels, but that departure led down a most fruitful path, so it’s a pleasure to see another instalment. (It made my Books of 2020 list, as I read it at the end of December, I’m just a little tardy on posting the review…)
The opening chapter is deeply unsettling – more so because there’s no drama, no histrionics, no melodramatic language, it’s just quiet, inevitable and devastating. It lingers in the back of the mind as the action proper begins.
Watching a protest in Inverness led by Mo Burke, matriarch of a local criminal family, which is swiftly usurped by Finbar Dalgliesh, lawyer and leader of a growing right-wing political movement, reporter Rebecca Connolly is taking notes and waiting for the chance to get a quote from those whipping up the crowd about the rehousing locally of a sex offender released from prison. The contrast between Mo and Dalgliesh is sharp – the former all unfocussed anger, the latter all polished manipulation. The Burkes (the name a nice nod to Scotland’s dark history) are a collection of unpleasant characters of the sort found in every city, though there is more to them than first meets the eye. Dalgliesh easily oozes into the shifty politician stereotype, but Skelton adds a chill of genuine menace, again making sure there’s more than just surface to the character.
Before Rebecca can grab her quote and get back to the office, a photographer friend persuades her to instead come with him to Culloden, where a body has been found – a recently-deceased one, not an 18th century battle casualty, though the man was found wearing period Highland dress and the murder weapon appears to have been a claymore…
As Rebecca and freelance colleague Elspeth dig into the murder, the Burke family and the work of Dalgliesh’s movement – Spioraid nan Gaidheal (“Spirit of the Gael”) or Spioraid for short – Skelton drops in some quietly awful interludes from the point of view of a child who is locked away and suffering. These short chapters both act as pauses while Rebecca’s chase speeds up, and are a reminder – a warning? – that the past influences everything in life and cannot be forgotten.
Another protest whipped up by Dalgliesh about the sex offender is a real masterclass from Skelton – what initially feels like a small scene gradually builds up and out into a perfectly poised setpiece, with a real sense of danger to Rebecca and photographer Chas, and also a portrait of how a community’s worries and fears can be manipulated and misinterpreted by outsiders whether media or otherwise. I had my heart in my mouth as Rebecca sees the mood of the crowd change in moments but is helpless to escape as it turns on her.
The discovery of a second body leads down a murkier path as a link is made to the first death, and the cops and Rebecca find that the identification of the first victim is not as straightforward as it might be.
Skelton has obviously done plenty of research into Jacobite history and that of Inverness itself, but the detail is boiled down to only what is relevant to the story. The city is also drawn carefully, but while I feel I could navigate between Rebecca’s favoured haunts, I’d miss all the tourist sites and the shops, as only the former are included – again, it’s about what serves the story.
In places The Blood Is Still is a tough read in terms of the images being created, but it’s never a difficult read in terms of language and style. It’s a pace-y thriller with a dash of page-turning police procedural, and leavened with just enough of the blackest humour – for journalists and cops have that in common – to keep the despair at bay.
Skelton, a former journalist with a string of true crime books to his name, has honed his fiction writing skills across the darkness of the Davie McCall series, the sharp quipping Dominic Queste novels and the slick New York-set thriller The Janus Run. With Thunder Bay he embarked on a new road and grabbed a 2019 McIlvanney Prize longlisting for his troubles. With The Blood Is Still, all those writing styles and skills have been distilled down into a simply superb novel, with plot, pace, character and place all working clockwork-smooth; each element in the right place at the right time and moving together seamlessly to make up a precision instrument.
The last chapters are the perfect exhibition of slow ratcheting up of tension as Rebecca finds out the links between everything that has happened, with what I can only describe as one hell of an ending. There are chills from the revelations and the weather both; a poetic feel to the descriptions of place and elements in contrast to the quietly-revealed horrors wrought by humans. And finally, a chink of hope, for we all need that in dark times.
And here’s the best part: you don’t see anything of the moving parts while you are reading because it’s so well put together there is no sign of a seam anywhere. It’s not until you close the covers at the end and let it percolate in your mind for a while that you can start to see the craftsmanship that went into it. And then you appreciate it all over again. Bravo, Douglas – and long may Rebecca stick her nose into other people’s business, because I could read these books forever.