When writing in any genre, new writers in particular have a balance to try to get right. They want to introduce something fresh while still making the writing recognisable to regular readers who expect certain tropes and conceits from their fiction. If you can get the balance right then there is every chance you have a successful novel on your hands.
One of the finest crime fiction debuts of recent years was Claire MacLeary’s Cross Purpose (right). Published in 2017 on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books, it introduced two new crime fighters in the unfamiliar form of Maggie Laird and “Big” Wilma Harcus, an odd couple in a fine and long tradition from Holmes and Watson to the vast majority of recent TV detectives (Morse/Lewis, Scott/Bailey, Creek/Magellen and Hayes/Addison being just a few personal favourites).
However, having two middle-aged woman as your main protagonists is still rare enough to be noteworthy and celebrated in itself. Have them investigating crimes in and around Aberdeen, a region also underrepresented in Scottish writing, and you have situations, people, and places, rarely seen which makes the novel immediately interesting before you begin. When you add to that premise page-turning action, an ear for everyday speech which avoids cliché and the sensational, and a pleasingly dark sense of humour, it was clear that this was a writer you wanted to hear from again.
The good news is Maggie and Wilma are back in Burnout, but before going on to look at that book it is interesting to note that this was always going to be the case. In the short biography before Cross Purpose begins, it states that it will be “..followed by a sequel, Burnout.” At the end of Burnout the premise for “Harcus & Laird’s next case…” is set out. This is not only a sign of how highly MacLeary’s publishers regard her, but is a lesson for others as allowing a writer the space to create stories and character arks which will develop over the space of more than a single book makes for more interesting stories, and it is more likely that a writer will develop a following as the series unfolds. Of course, presumably for financial reasons, it appears to happen less these days, but it seems this need not be the case, with another recent example being Charles E. McGarry’s Leo Moran mysteries.
Such continuity is clear from the beginning of Burnout, where the consequences of Maggie and Wilma’s previous investigations are still unfolding, strained relationships are struggling to heal, and others continue to develop. They are finding new cases to take on, such as that of the enigmatic Sheena Struthers who is insistent, despite a distinct lack of evidence, that her husband is trying to kill her. But what is made evident is that there is not a clear and clean beginning, middle and end to criminal cases. There are causes and reasons beforehand, and often messy outcomes to follow. Sometimes there is no desired conclusion at all. This results in guilt, self-doubt, accusations and recriminations for those involved. It’s complicated, just like life.
And the reality of every day life is something else MacLeary understands well. Relationships with family, friends and partners are all central to Maggie and Wilma’s world, often causing them to look upon their investigations in different lights as the personal and professional feed into each other, each seeing parallels from their own lives in those of others. They come into contact with domestic and sexual abuse, institutional and everyday sexism, and general hypocrisy and deceit, but the strong and enduring support for, and from, both women is something they, in turn, try to offer their clients. It is tempting to see Burnout as a book of its time, when the question of gender equality in all areas has rarely been as prominent, but actually it’s more that the times are chiming with MacLeary’s writing as these stories are all too recognisable and enduring.
This is a writer who has a clear vision of who her characters are and what drives them – their hopes, fears, insecurities and weaknesses, but also their strengths. As you would expect, there is violence, fear, and loathing, in evidence, but it is often hidden behind closed doors, and is all the more insidious for it. Burnout is a psychological thriller rather than one which deals in shock and “Argh!”, avoiding the graphic and gruesome depictions which other writers often rely on, and this makes it a more interesting read than you may expect. Warm, witty, thoughtful, and thrilling, Burnout leaves you with the feeling that Claire MacLeary is only just getting started.