Dark Water by Caro Ramsay
I was halfway through Caro Ramsay’s stupendous new thriller before I learned, with some surprise, that it was billed as the third book in the Anderson and Costello series. Crime writers love a recurring protagonist – it gives room to form character arcs and relationships beyond the episodic, potentially formulaic storylines – and some of the best have created heroes that are now embedded deep in the pop-culture consciousness – Ramsay’s fellow Scot Val McDermid’s Jordan and Hill, Lynda La Plante’s inimitable Tennison.
The aforementioned characters are, however, notable not just for their forensic and investigative skills but also for spectacular personal flaws. I failed, at first, to note the importance of DI Colin Anderson and DS Freddie Costello, partly because they are just two of more than a dozen intriguing Glaswegian police officers working to solve the mysterious murder that opens the book, but also because any private dysfunction is treated with a lightness of hand generally seen only in the best crime fiction.
Which this is. Dark Water, featuring one of the most chilling prologues I have read, is a gritty, lucid police procedural that maintains a stranglehold on the reader – and more than a few unfortunate characters. The crime committed in the opening passage remains unsolved at the start of the first chapter, and is unearthed once more when, 10 years later in grey, 2010 Glasgow, a crime with similar distinctive hallmarks is discovered.
With a steady hand, Ramsay guides her host of oddbods – the disenfranchised family man Anderson, the sprightly, clever Costello, and a rogue’s gallery of colleagues and adversaries – through a minefield of cold cases and around a merry-go-round of potential, usually quickly-discounted, suspects. She possesses a fine ear for dialogue (a beast of burden for many writers), and her sparing use of dialect serves to enhance rather than distract.
Ramsay has said that she prefers writing about the aftermath of violence, rather than the violence itself, and indeed, the novel is free of the literal, visceral depictions you expect from a Hayder or Kellerman. But she cuts it fine, and her penchant for beginning or ending a scene just outside the violent act, and for having her talented, jaded cops pore over the grisly evidence of brutality, has the effect of heightening the intensity, suspense and sheer thrill of the story.
Ramsay continues to work full-time as an osteopath and told an interviewer she has little time for research, but this is not the only reason she has chosen to set her books in her homeland: she has an acute awareness of how the Scottish weather, which she describes as “black, brooding and chilling”, can be used to set tone and mood.
Given the landscape, she notes, Scottish crime fiction “leads itself to the dark and dangerous”, and she brings this view to bear in the novel’s later action, which occurs primarily in a sprawling country estate of wooded paths, secret entrances, flora-filled greenhouses and a fog-laden lake.
Dark Water is a novel of unnerving precision and narrative weight, and with it Ramsay should be considered for a place alongside McDermid and Rankin as one of the great crime-writing Scots.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Previously reviewed on coast.co.nz