Chris Brookmyre – The Cut
First, the official blurb: Millie Spark can kill anyone. A special effects make-up artist, her talent is to create realistic scenes of bloody violence. Then, one day, she wakes to find her lover dead in her bed. Twenty-five years later, her sentence for murder served, Millicent is ready to give up on her broken life – until she meets troubled Glasgow film student and reluctant petty thief Jerry. Together, they begin to discover that all was not what it seemed on that fateful night … and someone doesn’t want them to find out why.
I’ve been a fan of Chris Brookmyre since he was Christopher and writing novels with titles that must’ve made the marketing team faint; I love their wicked humour and the places where Brookmyre gets his rant on in the midst of a snappy plot. But as he has grown as a writer and chosen more complex plots and swapped some of the jokes for deeper emotions, I’ve been drawn further in. After 2019’s Fallen Angel, a superlative psychological thriller, The Cut is another standalone, with a prologue I’d be amazed anyone could resist – no way will you read this then put the book down and walk away whistling, the only reaction possible is to Turn. The. Page.
Millicent is in her 70s and is dipping a toe in the waters of the world after being released from prison at the end of a long sentence for the murder of her lover, Markus. Jerry is a young guy with a troubled background trying to navigate the alien planet that is university life. Two people on the fringes of the world, feeling like they will never fit in – and also unwilling to smother their real selves to blend in entirely. Millicent’s first scenes are painful, emotional, delicate. She is detached from the world and theoretically trying to reconnect, but she’s not sure she wants to. Her experience of trying to buy a coffee shows something of how her time in prison changed her. Jerry’s first scene is tense, hard and with a payoff that is both problematic and which made me grin. He doesn’t fit in with those in his hall of residence, and though potential connections elsewhere could fill the gap, he won’t let them. Two very different examples of self-sabotage.
Jerry was brought up by his grandmother who owned a video store, which led to his love of horror films and ultimately his place at university to study film. One is stuck in his mind though he’s never seen it and never will, for the negative is said to have been destroyed by the makers after they deemed it too awful to release: Mancipium. It is also a link to an awful incident which made him determined to turn his life around. But such secrets never remain hidden forever.
He finds an escape from his residence in an advert for a student to share a house with three elderly ladies looking for social links to the younger generation (it’s a real project in Sweden, fact fans). One of the three is, of course, Millicent. The four housemates go out for a celebratory dinner, and while at the hotel restaurant, Millicent stumbles across a photograph that literally floors her. But after she recovers from her world being shattered, she is curious. And after “curious” comes “determined to investigate and uncover the whole story”; the why as well as the who.
Having garnered our curiosity and sympathy, only then does Brookmyre show us Millicent’s crime, through Jerry searching newspaper reports – so we know the information is not entirely to be trusted, as the salivating headlines fail to take any notice of the facts. Millicent’s work as a special effects make-up artist on horror films (a denigrated genre despite its popularity with the public; Brookmyre’s love of and respect for it is obvious) pulled her into the “video nasty” furore, drowning out her protestations of innocence. The last film she worked on? Mancipium, of course.
The focus shifts between the 1990s when Millicent was working on Mancipium and met Markus, and the present, where she and Jerry chase the lead she has uncovered. The two then embark on a road trip across France and Italy, strongly reminiscent of a glamorous caper film, and there’s a feeling of clouds lifting and horizons opening up even though danger is still very much present.
The combination of glamour and grime runs through the novel like a vein of opal through rock: hard, dirty, dangerous work go into chasing the beauty, just as hard work and dedication create films which are greater than the sum of their parts. Hold a stone and turn it in the light and you’ll see the different colours reveal themselves, like previously hidden facets of personalities. And of course there’s the sheen of glamour that clouds the vision, with the exploitation, sleaze and outright abuse being ignored.
In an industry where nothing is as it seems – fake buildings, fake blood, body doubles – you should trust nothing and no-one. The negative of Mancipium really was destroyed, but by who and why? And what else has been hidden? As Millicent and Jerry travel further, they remove layer after layer of cover-up.
There is real pain for both Millicent and Jerry at various points, but there are lighter moments too – I loved the section in Paris where they spar via film quotes, and Jerry’s collection of heavy metal band T-shirts is a delight (Brookmyre has said his son is a fan of the genre).You could argue that the link between Millicent and Jerry that slowly unfolds is a bit too neat, but it develops the characters’ relationship beautifully, and is a nifty plot McGuffin too. And for a novel with a substantial body count, it remains cosier fare, its ending deliberately uplifting.
The Cut is a smashing, page-turning read – darkness and light, danger and delight, all perfectly balanced. And all the time Millicent and Jerry, two sparky characters that I love, are connecting with the world and finding their places in it, which left me feeling all warm and fuzzy.
Chris Brookmyre was a journalist before becoming a full-time novelist with the publication of his award-winning debut Quite Ugly One Morning, which established him as one of Britain’s leading crime authors. His novels have sold more than two million copies in the UK alone, and Black Widow won both the McIlvanney Prize and the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. He took home the CWA Dagger In The Library award in 2020.