Against all expectations, the Christmas/ New Year period allowed for the reading of some of the books which have been sitting on SWH!’s ever present ‘must-read’ pile, and the next few posts will review at least a couple of those. First up is Charles E. McGarry’s The Ghost Of Helen Addison, which introduces us to Leo Moran, a Glaswegian private eye who is unlike any you’ll have met before, which is in itself a reason for cheer.
In the world of crime-fiction, and Scottish crime-fiction in particular, the belief persists that the genre is one which relies on familiar tropes, stereotypes and cliches. However, I would hope that the work of many of the writers of crime who have featured on these pages, including Louise Welsh, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Douglas Skelton, Michael J. Malone, Alice Thomson and Russel D. McLean, would have changed readers’ preconceptions if they persisted. All of those mentioned, and many others, have very distinct styles and are wildly and wonderfully different to one another. If you’ve yet to embrace Scottish crime fiction, you’re missing out.
Which bring us back to Leo Moran, the decidedly dapper Glaswegian detective who takes on the case of the suspicious death of a young woman in Argyll. McGarry depicts Moran in wonderful detail, and there is a lot of detail to detail. For instance, this is a typical evening meal, “He started with some exquisite Oban scallops with braised pig’s cheek, followed by mock turtle soup, braised halibut, and then saddle of venison in a beetroot and sloe gin jelly, all washed down with a bottle of Chambertin.” This is not your typical Clydeside gumshoe, but someone who presents to the world a desire for the finer things in life, and a sensibility bordering on foppish. How you react to that last sentence will probably dictate if you instinctively warm to Leo Moran or not, but either way he is worthy of your attention.
As someone who likes to delude themselves that they know their collars and cuffs, and the difference between an Oxford and Derby brogue, Leo Moran’s sartorial style and eye-for-detail appeal greatly. He likes to think himself a man of elan and taste, but this, as it almost always is, is part of his armour against the world, a costume which he chooses with great care. More Sherlock Holmes than Laidlaw, Parlabane, or Queste, you initially feel he just wasn’t made for these times.
However, a great detective is defined by their deeds rather than their duds, and Moran’s first case is a complex one, with lots of possibilities as to whodunnit. Having been introduced to Leo it is all to easy to imagine how he could wind up local police and other residents of Argyll, not only bringing his individual style to their locale, but an attitude to match. Have no doubt, this is a flawed character, and just as he has to uncover the secrets and lies of those he meets to try to discover the killer, so the reader must look past the surface layers to understand what motivates and drives Leo Moran.
Add to this his abilities as a ‘seer’, able to communicate with the dead – (a supernatural twist which will surely be developed in future) – and you begin to understand that this is no ordinary detective novel. The titular ghost of Helen Addison becomes an accomplice in solving the case, although not enough is made of her infrequent appearances until the very end.
The Ghost Of Helen Addison is named as being “The First Leo Moran Murder Mystery”, which is welcome as this is a detective and a writer who I want to spend more time with. That would allow McGarry not only to explore other aspects of Moran’s personality, but, more importantly moving forward, that of other characters. The problem in having such a memorable protagonist is that every one else struggles to make an impression.
Not only could more have been made of Helen, but also DI Laing, the Fettes’ educated and fabulously monickered Fordyce Greatorix, and significant others. This is particularly applicable to Moran’s “friend” and confidante, Stephanie, who brings welcome insight and cynicism to proceedings when she appears, and who has the potential to be the Watson to his Holmes, puncturing his pomposity and calling him out on his prejudices when need be.
With The Ghost Of Helen Addison Charles E. McGarry has presented a new voice to Scottish crime fiction, and a memorable character to match. I’m looking forward to seeing how these novels develop as they not only have the potential to become a series which bring something fresh to the genre, but could also transfer to screen. I for one would like to see Leo Moran made flesh, if only for the wardrobe hints and restaurant recommendations.