1977. The year the Sex Pistols released Never Mind The Bollocks, Elvis died, Star Wars broke box-office records, Bowie told us “We could be heroes”, and Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish moved across the border from Celtic to Liverpool – momentous events one and all. The way history remembers it, it was a time when real change was in the air, and for many it was the year which saw the beginning of the end of the ’70s and where the sparks which would culturally ignite the 1980s can be found.
1977 is also the year in which J.V. Baptie’s latest novel The Forgotten is set, and there is also that sense of change in the air as newly promoted Detective Sergeant Helen Carter struggles to be accepted by her colleagues in the Edinburgh CID. Helen has a family background in the police, her father being a retired Inspector, but this fact hinders her rather than helps. Those she works with accuse her of having an easy ride, yet her father is against her choice of career as well. Her older, alcoholic, partner Ted also disapproves, looking for alternative work opportunities for her behind her back, and believing that her leaving this life behind will make things all right between them, instead of taking a good look at himself. As she works on a multiple murder enquiry, she is hindered by prejudice and preconception at every turn.
Then there is the other central character, ex-policeman turned private investigator George Stanley whose name keeps appearing wherever the bodies are found. He used to work under Helen’s father, and this leads her to question the one man she thought she knew well. As events unfold she has to decide whether to trust Stanley, or anyone for that matter. The case takes her from Edinburgh to Glasgow and back, and the already relentless pace quickens as the closer she gets to the killer, the greater the danger to herself.
Baptie captures the time and place beautifully, evoking the smells, sights, sounds and attitudes of the ’70s, whether real or imagined. There is a similar feel as to the TV cop shows of the day, such as The Sweeney or Hazell, particularly in the way villains, and women, are talked about and to. Perhaps a more apt comparison is 2006’s Life On Mars as Helen seems out of time to her colleagues, friends and family. The characters who inhabit her world are clearly written by someone who understands human nature, and failings. Helen’s colleagues are threatened by her, often wishing to undermine or demean her, constantly patronising yet still feeling protective towards her. She is one of theirs after all.
Few have a sense that she can do the job, even though she proves herself more than worthy. Reading The Forgotten at the time of #MeToo adds an interesting dimension as it’s a fascinating and all too accurate portrayal of the treatment of many women in the workplace, and is not as far removed from today as many would think. Readers may shake their heads at what was considered acceptable in the ’70s, but while the language may have changed many of the attitudes have not.
The setting is also interesting for reasons of plot, and it is worth noting that a few recent crime novels have been set pre-’90s. I would conjecture that this is, at least partly, because there are no mobile phones, sat navs, Google, and all those other things which could throw a technological spanner in an otherwise tightly written plot. However, if you are going to do this you have to make sure you don’t bludgeon the reader with references to signpost where and when the action is. Baptie stays on the right side of this fine line, with just enough mentions of Marathons, Smash, Close Encounters, and ABBA to set the scene. There is one line, quoted from a Public Information film, which gave me such a hit of nostalgia that I had to take a minute to recover.
The Forgotten is high quality crime fiction which marks J.V. Baptie as a writer to take note of right now. In terms of style and content it will appeal to fans of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre, but there is something else going on. With the action starting at a rapid pace from the off, and not letting up till the last page, you could read it as a straightforward crime novel and you will not be disappointed. It’s a one sitting, two at the most, book. However, the strong characterisation encourages more as you really invest in them hoping for some to succeed, some to fail, and some just to change, and you can’t help but consider how far we have or have not come in terms of equality in the workplace. The Forgotten would make a great radio or TV drama, so before they do that you should get your hands on the novel because, as we all know, the book is always the best.