Black Widow (Jack Parlabane 7) by Chris Brookmyre

Winner of the 2016 McIlvanney Prize…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

black-widowWhen Peter Elphinstone drives off the road into a river one cold, dark night, it appears to have been a tragic accident. But Peter’s sister isn’t convinced. She knows Peter was stressed and unhappy in his new marriage and fears there’s more to his death than it looks at first sight. So she asks journalist Jack Parlabane to investigate. The uniformed police officer who attended the scene of the crash also isn’t wholly convinced, but CID seem happy to let the incident be filed under accident. So Ali and her new partner Rodriguez carry out a little investigation of their own. Soon all the evidence seems to be pointing towards Peter’s wife, Diana…

This is my first introduction to Chris Brookmyre and I was hugely impressed by the quality of the writing. The book is told partly in third person from Parlabane’s point of view, partly in first person from Diana, and partly from a neutral third person voice covering any aspect not directly involving either of these two characters.

Diana is a surgeon who once kept an anonymous blog where she complained about the sexism shown to women within medicine and the NHS in general, and told some fairly damning stories about colleagues. Her cover was blown when she got hacked, and a huge public scandal ensued that led to Diana being forced to leave her high-flying job down South and head for the small and rather remote town of Inverness in the Scottish highlands where, despite her reputation, the management were keen to have such a skilled surgeon on their books. Alone, forty, and with her body-clock ticking loudly, it’s here that she meets Peter, one of the hospital’s IT guys, and after a whirlwhind romance, they marry. The question is: what lead to Peter’s death only six months later? Diana tells us the story of their relationship, while Parlabane digs into her background.

Inverness - Gateway to the Highlands
Inverness – Gateway to the Highlands

The NHS setting is brought convincingly to life, and I say that as someone who has spent most of her working life in it. All the rivalries, the arrogance of the top medical professionals, the strict pecking order, the cliques and groups, the loyalties and ultimately the professionalism are all very well done. Brookmyre shows the sexism as an institutional thing – that it is hard for women doctors and surgeons to balance such a demanding career with a fulfilling family life – rather than overt sexism from male colleagues, and again I found this very true to life.

The characterisation is very good, especially of the main characters, Diana and Peter, both of whom Brookmyre manages to keep ambiguous even while we learn a lot about them. The plotting also starts out great, though in truth I felt the outcome was pretty well signalled by about halfway through, meaning the twists towards the end came as no big surprise. There are also a couple of pretty big deviations from reality, which I’m not sure would be noticed by non-Scots in one instance, and non-Scottish NHS employees with a good understanding of the rules around NHS IT confidentiality in the other. Unfortunately, being both those things, they leapt out at me and left me wondering if it had been a failure of research or whether Brookmyre had simply decided to twist things to fit his plot. A degree of fictional licence is always permissible, of course, so I did my best to overlook them, but they did kinda spoil the credibility for me, especially since both were important as to how the plot worked out.

Chris Brookmyre
Chris Brookmyre

Despite those criticisms, I found the book very readable and more-ish, doing that just one more chapter thing till the wee sma’ hours. Parlabane is a likeable character. He’s clearly had some ethical problems in the past, and still isn’t averse to breaking the odd law or two, but in this one at least his motives are good and he doesn’t go too far into maverick territory. His divorce has just become final, and he’s finding himself approaching middle-age, single and with his career going through a rocky patch. Brookmyre handles all of this well, including plenty of humour in the book to prevent any feeling of angsty wallowing. The tragic thing is that I now feel I have to add all the previous Parlabane books to my list and investigate some of his other stuff too… oh, my poor TBR!

PS This was the book that won the 2016 McIlvanney Prize, for which regular readers may remember I was involved in the longlisting process. A worthy winner in my opinion, though my own preference is still for Douglas Skelton’s Open Wounds.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

20 thoughts on “Black Widow (Jack Parlabane 7) by Chris Brookmyre

  1. I like Brookmyre’s work very much, FictionFan. He’s got such a keen eye for authentic, real-life contexts (like the NHS). I like the wit woven into the stories, too. And he sprinkles it in just enough, but not too much, if that makes sense. I’ll admit I’ve not (yet) read this one, but I fully intend to; he’s got a lot of talent.

    • I’ve always thought I would like him based on blurbs and reviews, so it was good that he lived up to my expectations. Yes, I do like a bit of humour to lift the tone – otherwise crime fiction can become too grim. I’ll certainly be looking our for more of his stuff… just as soon as I get a space in the TBR! 😉

  2. Sounds like a great read. As a fellow NHS employee the discrepancies would jar with me too – good to hear he gets it mostly right!

    My favourite on those medical soaps is when 2 members of staff (who are always working the same shifts as each other) have a conversation about their love life across the bed of a patient, who miraculously doesn’t react at all 😀

    • Haha! Yes! Or when the patient joins in (despite the bleeding wound, agonising pain and feeding tubes) and gives them relationship advice! So credible!

      He does get it right mostly and the bit that jarred was really a kind of policy thing – I’m guessing it would only bother fellow pedants. But definitely not enough to spoil an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable book… 🙂

    • Yep, I thoroughly enjoyed it! And seriously, I doubt whether most people would even notice the credibility gap – it’s only because it happened to be something I knew about because of working in the NHS. I’ll certainly be reading more of his stuff… 🙂

  3. I’ve seen this around but I don’t like what you said about the twists being predictable, so i guess I will pass this. Great review though 😀

    • Thank you! 🙂 Oh, that’s a pity! I did think it was pretty well signalled what the major twist was going to be though. I’ll definitely be reading more of his stuff in the future, so maybe I’ll tempt you with a different one sometime… 😉

  4. Oh, dear, more added to your TBR? Well, if they’re as good as this one sounds, you’d be wise to make room for them! I haven’t read any of this author’s books, but I might have to do so after reading your excellent review. Have a lovely weekend, FF!

    • I know! And he’s written loads too! I’ll just have to add them one at a time so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming… 😉 You have a great weekend too, Debbie! 😀

  5. I LOVED this book. I did not know it was part of a series when I requested it on NetGalley months ago but it did not take away any of the pleasure to follow those brilliant characters around. Characterization is definitely the author’s strong point. I loved reading about Diana. I have a couple of other books from Brookmyre and I hope they are as good.

    • I haven’t read anything by this author although having read other reviews I know he should be on the list. It’s good to hear from someone in the know that the representation of the NHS was accurate and I do like moreish books – I guess I will need to start at the beginning of this series before too long 😉

      • Yeah, I don’t know why I’ve never read any of his stuff before – his books sound like just my kind of thing, and after reading this one, I now know they are! His next one has just turned up on NetGalley, if you wanted to jump into the middle of the series – I didn’t get the impression there was a major story arc that means they must be read in strict order… 🙂

    • I don’t know why I’ve never read him before – his books sound like just my kind of thing! I agree about the characterisation – what I liked was that you felt as if you’d got to know them but still weren’t sure who was good and who was bad. I see his next one has just turned up on NetGalley – though really I should go back and read the series in order… if I was sensible… 😉

  6. Thanks for this review. I’ve always meant to read Brookmyre – I bought a couple of his books for my dad, but never got round to reading them myself. I’ll look up this one, and perhaps Want You Gone. I started Denise Mina half way through her series and it all worked out happily for me.

    • I don’t know why I haven’t read him before, but he’s one I’ll definitely be catching up on. Hope you enjoy him too! I’m also ashamed to say that I’ve barely read any Denise Mina – just one of her Paddy Meehan books, I think. Must do better! I never mind popping into a series halfway through – in fact, I often find a series doesn’t really hit its stride till the third or fourth book anyway.

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