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Bob Skinner has a lot on his plate; he is on a very short list for promotion to Chief Constable and he is planning on getting married (again), so a couple of murders - one of a leading Scottish crime writer at the Edinburgh Book Festival by an ingenious method, and the other a brutal assault on a traveller near Bob's home are the last things he needs. The large cast of officers who are involved with the cases, and later with a third murder of another Scottish crime writer in Australia, have a lot of different leads to follow, not least among them the fact that the first and third murders were copied from the writers' own plots, but also the fact that it seems that the security services have been involved. A great deal of ground - both literally and metaphorically - has to be covered before Bob is in a position to tie everything together and solve the cases.
FATAL LAST WORDS is the 19th in the Bob Skinner series but the first I have read. In this particular case coming late to the series is a real drawback but also points up a genuine, and therefore praiseworthy, distinctiveness; there is what can only be described as colossal amount of back-story. Or back-stories. Not only do we have Bob Skinner himself and his relationships to his children, especially the eldest Alex who is a character in her own right, his partner (soon to be wife) Aileen (who also happens to be Scotland's First Minister), his colleagues, various contacts and so on, but we also have an enormous supporting cast of various members of the Edinburgh Police, many of whom also have their own back-stories and relationships. Frankly there is far too much for the new reader to take in and one becomes a bit lost. However I am sure that for series devotees all this is very satisfying.
But beyond this so much time is spent on issues of the character's relationships to their partners, children and so on that the book has something of a soap-opera feel; this is particularly so as none of these relationships is given much psychological depth and we stop - on the evidence of this book anyway - outside the bedroom door. This makes the book curiously old-fashioned; more, it gives the book a feel which - and I am here using the word not as is common in the mystery reading and reviewing community but in its general sense - can best be described as cosy. Because soap-operas are cosy, comforting. I would stress that I am not being pejorative here - there is a very definitely a place for this sort of fiction (whether in prose or on screen) - but trying to isolate what makes this series distinct. Certainly other mystery writers are interested in and develop the personal lives of their series characters in a wide variety of ways, but I can think of no example which covers so large a range of characters as this and which consequently induces the effect I have described. In stylistic terms Jardine achieves this through the use of short chapters and jumps from one character to another, not necessarily as determined by the plot; the chapters thus function as something akin to the scenes in a television soap.
Does this concentration on the complicated personal lives of a large cast of characters get in the way of the plot? Well to some extent it does. The plot is something of a curate's egg; there are some good ideas such as the use of the crime writers' plots to kill them; although I don't think this is wholly new it is a neat and promising theme. But from a fairly long way out it becomes clear that we dealing with a reasonably straight-forward plot with its roots in Balkan atrocities - a theme which I feel may have become over-used (although in fairness I think quite a lot of this usage has been on television screens rather than the page). There are admittedly two pleasing twists at the end and both murderers were a surprise to me, which is another feather in Jardine's cap. I have already referred to the fact that there is no real psychological depth here and Jardine's sociological and political observations are also fairly conventional. The prose is pleasant enough but never distinctive.
Indeed overall the best quality about this book is that it is extremely easy-reading; it induces pleasure. That is no small accomplishment. That pleasure would be very considerably enhanced for series readers who are fully conversant with all the back-stories. The pleasure it gives is to do with familiarity and ease - precisely the pleasures of a well-produced soap. In the world of mysteries this gives the book, and I presume the series if other entries are similar, the additional plus of a certain degree of originality. FATAL LAST WORDS is, despite the failings which certainly preclude it from the highest rank, very definitely enjoyable.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, September 2009
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