Let’s get this out the way straight off as it is the nostalgic elephant in the room. When I was sent a review copy of John Gordon Sinclair’s latest novel Blood Whispers I was as worried as I was excited. My worry was that I wouldn’t like it, not something that normally bothers me, but this is the man who is not only Gregory Underwood, but also Andy in That Sinking Feeling, Frank McClusky in Your Cheatin’ Heart, Dan Weir in the radio adaptation of Espedair Street, and sang ‘We Have A Dream’ with the 1982 Scottish World Cup squad. You may think this shouldn’t matter, but it does, and any regular reader of Scots Whay Hae! will know this. JGS has been involved in a few of my favourite things, and, like it or not, that is going to skew my review no matter how hard I reach for objectivity.
However, have no fear, as Blood Whispers, his second novel after 2012’s Seventy Times Seven, is really rather good. I’ve said before that crime/thriller fiction is not really my thing, but I realise this is rather disingenuous on my part as I regularly read Iain Banks, Christopher Brookmyre, Denise Mina, Louise Welsh and Doug Johnstone, all of whom have written in the genre. Suffice to say, I believe I have read enough to know what is good and what is not.
There are certain expectations when it comes to crime fiction, and the best writers know this but also know how to subvert those expectations. There is a fine balancing act to be performed in fulfilling the expectations of readers, yet avoiding falling into parody. JGS manages to pull this off for the most part, although there are times when his characters are dangerously close to stereotype. There are eastern European gangsters, American Secret Service agents, kindly priests, hookers with a heart of gold, hard bitten lawyers, nice but dim policeman, and more family secrets than the Borgias, but what saves the novel is JGS’s understanding of what makes good, pacy, dialogue, and a dark sense of humour which verges on the pleasingly unpleasantly perverse.
The central character of Kiera Lynch is a memorable one, and her back story is the most original and involving in the book. While some of her shocking childhood is exposed immediately, enough of it is kept back to keep the reader interested, and that is what keeps you going while people are tortured, shot, and generally mistreated. It is at these times when the writer’s humour can be a relief, but these are also the times when the dialogue can be a little forced, and I do wonder if that’s because I hear JGS’s voice rather than that of the characters, which I’m prepared to admit may say more about me.
Violent and relentless from the beginning, Blood Whispers does what the best pulp fiction should; grab you from the opening lines and race you through to a satisfying, if somewhat convoluted, conclusion. While it is not the most original novel of its type, and is unlikely to trouble many end of year “best of 2014” lists, it is good enough to make me seek out Seventy Times Seven and to look forward to seeing what John Gordon Sinclair does next. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?