Successful long-running series have a fine balancing act to pull off. Each book should work as a standalone read, with a plot which has a beginning, middle, and an end to bring matters to a satisfying conclusion. However, there also has to be another, equally important, strand – a narrative that runs through the series and keep regulars coming back for more.
In recent years few have been as successful at this than Claire MacLeary with her Laird and Harcus books. We may be drawn in by the crime-de-jour but we stay to find out what is new with Maggie and Big Wilma – and we do that because Claire MacLeary has made us care.
The latest in the series is Payback, and things are not running smoothly for Maggie and Wilma as they try, and struggle, to balance life and work, with each increasingly bleeding into one another. It is a trait of crime fiction that the protagonists should have flaws which ideally should fall just on the right side of fatal.
They may have addictions, from Sherlock Holmes and his morphine habit to the dysfunctional relationship with alcohol that so many modern detectives display, but nearly all also have psychological flaws, such as vanity, arrogance, or egotism with the potential to make them less than loveable, and their successes all the more remarkable.
Maggie and Wilma have little time for drink and drugs, but they have their own problems to address, and the pressures from working so closely together are more obvious in Payback than ever before. What has previously marked the two as different from most fictional detectives is that they were able to put aside their egos, desires, and personal issues to pull together. The selfish nature which seems inherent in the principle participants of crime fiction was sacrificed for the greater good.
However, just because things are put-aside doesn’t mean they disappear and the tensions which have always been below the surface between the two have become too great to ignore, although, in classic Scottish tradition, they try. This leads to conversations which seem to be about one thing, but which are clearly about another. Sound familiar?
Both see their futures, and that of the business, as taking different directions – with the realities of running any kind of business in the present (or at least pre-Covid) day biting hard. Do they give-up, or take greater risks to continue? This drifting apart proves to be dangerous for both as it becomes clear that together they are greater, and safer, than the sum of their parts.
If you have never read a Laird and Harcus novel you’ll find everything you need in Payback, but I’m willing to bet you won’t leave it there. The series not only introduces you to people you are unlikely to find in other crime novels, but also other places. If you know the north east of Scotland and Aberdeenshire there’s plenty of familiar locations to enjoy revisiting, a real, and perhaps unexpected, pleasure at this time.
What sets the series apart is that among the stories of murder, burglary, stalking, police procedure, interviews, and various other crimes and punishment there is an examination of the struggle to survive and remain relevant in the modern world, and of what really matters to us as individuals. Claire MacLeary has, with little fuss or fanfare, written a crime series that subverts and rejuvenates the crime genre, and that is as welcome as it is admirable.
You can hear Claire MacLeary talking to the SWH! podcast from April 2019.