One of the defining characteristics of most successful crime series is to have protagonists who readers look forward to spending time with. This is particularity prevalent in Scottish Crime Fiction. From Sherlock Holmes to John Rebus and beyond, the best crime writers have created characters who are undoubtedly flawed – arguably defined by those flaws – but who carry enough charisma, charm and intrigue to keep us on their side.
It’s with that in mind that we can give a warm welcome back to private investigators Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, whose flaws, while still evident, are less-sensational than an opium or whisky habit. They are back for round three in their fight against Aberdeen’s criminals in Claire MacLeary’s latest novel Runaway.
This time around we find Maggie and Wilma’s relationship beginning to fracture as cases are increasingly rare, often disagreeing as to the best way to go about their business. Imagine Cagney and Lacey, older, wiser, and wearier, but working the slightly less-mean streets of Mannofield rather than Manhattan, and you have some idea as to the women’s dynamic. Not love/hate, more love/exasperate.
When Scott Milne reports his wife Debbie as missing the police aren’t interested so he decides to go private, asking Harcus & Laird if they will help. The two argue as to whether this is a case worth taking on, with Wilma for and Maggie against. When they do it takes them to places which in turn remind them of their past, reassess the present, and make them fear for the future.
Runaway has a distinctly darker tone than MacLeary’s earlier work, commenting on homelessness, the lives of sex workers, and people-traffiking (something which appears to be rife in northern Scotland, also featuring in Douglas Skelton’s latest novel Thunder Bay as well as being central to the plot of the last series of Shetland).
But, as with Cross Purpose and Burnout, Runaway is as much about the drama of everyday living as it is about solving crime. The reason Maggie and Wilma are relatable is because they are so believable. Two suburban middle-aged women working as PI’s is a tricky scenario to pull off, but MacLeary clearly understands these women and their lives.
Whereas Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane, or Douglas Skelton’s Dominic Queste all have lifestyles which allow them to play the loner, fulfilling crime/noir stereotypes as perfected by the likes of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, Maggie and Wilma have responsibilities which many readers will relate to – ones which they take seriously. Family, partners, friends and colleagues, for most of us these are ties which are not easily severed, and they fight for them despite often receiving disapproval, opprobrium, and often condemnation for what they do. Overcoming, or rather dealing with, such attitudes, often from their nearest and dearest, shows true strength and determination.
This recognisable humanity is what makes Claire MacLeary’s novels as notable as they are welcome. She makes nods to, and understands, the tropes and themes of crime fiction but adapts them to her characters rather than the other way round, avoiding cliche and stereotype. This also applies to the way people talk to each other. MacLeary clearly has an ear for how people argue, bicker, and tease, but also understands how they struggle to apologise, explain, or make-up afterwards. It’s as much about what remains unspoken as what is said, and the problems that result from this inability to communicate.
Both women’s life experience comes into its own and it’s their refusal to be overlooked and ignored which gives Runaway a vitality and verve which is rare. MacLeary uses who they are and how others may perceive them as a strength rather than suggesting any weakness, turning people’s prejudices against them. Being underestimated and patronised becomes one of the greatest weapons in their armour.
What is often asked when you review a novel in a running series is, “Do you need to have read the earlier books?”. With Runaway the answer is two-fold – “No you don’t”, but also, “You should anyway”. Runaway stands on its own as a great crime novel, but I’ll bet that once you have made Maggie and Wilma’s acquaintance you’ll want to get to know more. In just three novels they have become two of Scottish fiction’s most engaging characters, who, as suggested at the top of the page, you’ll want to spend more time with. I can’t wait to find out what they, and Claire MacLeary, do next.