Sword & Scandals: A Review Of Douglas Skelton’s The Blood Is Still…

As I began reading Douglas Skelton’s latest novel the film Multiplicity popped into my head, a movie I haven’t thought about since it came out in 1996. In it a post-Batman (but pre-A Shot At Glory) Michael Keaton finds a way to clone himself numerous times, with each clone exhibiting a different aspect of the original’s personality, and I do wonder if something similar is happening with Douglas Skelton.

Not only one of the most prolific crime writers around, but one of the most diverse, he has already given us an incredible range of writing. Leaving aside his substantial non-fiction, previous novels include the gritty Glaswegian Davie McCall series, the nouveau-noir of Dominic Queste, his cinematic take on a New York thriller The Janus Run, and most recently Thunder Bay, the first of the Rebecca Connolly books, each one of which is worthy of your attention.

An investigative journalist desperate to make her mark in a murky and mostly male world, Connolly returns in Skelton’s The Blood Is Still. Set in and around Inverness, it avoids, and at times plays with, stereotypes and Caledonian clichés. Instead we are offered a modern, urban, and realistic depiction of the Highland’s capital city and those who live there, while still capturing the unique atmosphere of the surrounding landscape. Opening with a short chapter where a man is dying on one of Scotland’s most infamous fields, Skelton throws us, and Connolly, straight back into the action after Thunder Bay with barely time to get reacquainted.

That’s not to say you have to have read the previous novel to enjoy The Blood Is Still, but there is no doubt that it would help (and there is less doubt that you should). While the crimes and criminals may be different much-loved characters return, and although their stories and relationships are explained as the action unfolds, for those who read Thunder Bay it’s like greeting old friends.

This time Connolly has to deal with everything from local mob protests organised by ‘persons of interest’ to potential terrorism from the mysterious Black Dawn, and plenty in between. Throughout you are never entirely sure whose story is credible as Skelton refuses to simply split groups and individuals into ‘good vs evil’.

Instead it is all about the characters and what motivates them. There is a fine line between making individuals recognisable types but still fresh and believable, and this is where Skelton thrives. There are criminal matriarchs, suspect politicians, world-weary police, secretive scientists, and others who could have strayed into the formulaic. Instead they are complex, nuanced and three-dimensional, essential not only in creating the tone of the novel, but to the story itself.

This is never more true than with the staff, and Rebecca Connolly’s co-workers, at fictitious newspaper the Highland Chronicle. Skelton has worked as a journalist himself and puts his insider knowledge to good use. With the authorities on one side and those they are investigating on the other, his journalists straddle these worlds giving readers insight and reflection on both – uncovering clues on our behalf.

Skelton has a fine line in wry and pointed commentary, with a sharp, and often scathing, humour and a healthy dose cynicism never far from the surface, and it works perfectly in this case in-particular. Not everyone Rebecca Connolly has dealings with is untrustworthy, but her trust is hard won, and for good reason.

Few writers seem to so clearly revel in what they do as Douglas Skelton. He is not only immersed in his chosen genre, but takes great delight in the attending tropes, themes, and devices, enjoying misdirection and mischief – playing with readers expectations as well as with language, character traits and types, and subverting them all when possible.

There are nods to other novels, cultural references which work as recommendations, and an uncanny ability to tie many plot strands together in a manner close to a magic trick which, even as you admire it, you’re not entirely sure how he has pulled it off. With each novel Douglas Skelton proves he is a writer to be reckoned with.

Douglas Skelton’s The Blood Is Still is out now published on the Polygon imprint of Birlinn Books

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