Today’s blog post is my review of a debut novel by Ian Skewis, another author who travelled the crowdfunding road with publisher Unbound. (At more or less the same time as me – our books were both funded in early 2016.)
The most violent thunderstorm in living memory occurs above a sleepy village on the West Coast of Scotland. A young couple take shelter in the woods, never to be seen again… DCI Jack Russell is brought in to investigate. Nearing retirement, he agrees to undertake one last case, which he believes can be solved as a matter of routine. But what Jack discovers in the forest leads him to the conclusion that he is following in the footsteps of a psychopath who is just getting started. Jack is flung headlong into a race against time to prevent the evolution of a serial killer…
Hobbs Brae, a fictional village (I think it must be as it didn’t come up on a Google search) in the countryside near Glasgow, is a wonderfully sinister setting for Ian Skewis’s debut novel, A Murder Of Crows (Unbound Digital, March 2017). There are brooding storms, and malevolent crows and cows. The area’s human inhabitants are faced with a suspected murderer in their midst after a young couple go missing on the night of a terrible storm, and the local police are presented with an array of suspicious characters…
A Murder Of Crows is a crime mystery which kept me guessing all the way through – layers of mystery stretching back in time are built up then pared back deliciously slowly, building suspense. Plot is not at the expense of character however (the reason I often find crime novels disappointing). Nearly all the characters are given their own viewpoints chapters, in either first or third person.
I found the writing suitably down to earth with a wonderfully eerie quality when describing landscape/nature. Flashes of humour work well to offset the dark content. There’s a grittiness in some of the police scenes which smacks of reality; the rift between Jack, a successful, about-to-retire detective and his jealous underling Colin is well written and pulled me right into the story. The dialogue is wonderfully feisty. A typical Colin thrust regarding Jack: ‘All his lordship is worried about it is the fact that I didn’t mention it in my report. Because I didn’t mention it, he thinks I’m trying to withhold something from him. Paranoid prat.’
Jack has a good many of the self-destructive traits that are apparently essential for the modern detective; he is obsessive about work, not in great shape and has a failing marriage and mental health issues. The author manages to avoid easy stereotypes however, showing us the failings of his characters – who in different ways are all struggling with health, mortality, their own weaknesses, etc – in a way that manages to be sympathetic yet admirably precise.
I particularly liked the frail yet feisty Alice, a dementia sufferer who does her best to cope with a deteriorating memory, a far from ideal carer and a big, alarmingly isolated house. Her imperfect recall is a great device. Apart from making her vulnerable and playing on our fears about her safety, it turns her into a very unreliable narrator indeed. Despite her condition, she is pretty astute:
‘It struck her that the air smelled exactly like the inside of her kettle.’
‘I don’t know why she puts up with me, Alice contemplated. The pay, I suppose.’
A motif runs through the novel of things circling/returning to a place or event, such as the storm, crows, dark shapes in the distance that form and disperse, the characters who leave and return to Hobbs Brae. And Alice’s memory keeps coming back to something involving a scarecrow…
I did have a few niggles, the main one being that the characters’ thoughts felt a bit too ‘wordy’ for my taste. Also the text contains a great deal of italics (e.g. to show characters’ thoughts, which was irritating.)
Overall though, I felt I was in capable hands and I thoroughly enjoyed A Murder Of Crows. The ending is nicely unexpected, too. The story is not entirely resolved, with some vagueness re significant past events (deliberately, possibly, given that Mr Skewis is writing another book to follow this one). I will certainly be reading book 2 to find out what happens to Jack, Alice et al.
Crows permitting, of course.
Ian Skewis was born in Scotland and was a professional actor for many years before moving on to writing. His short story, Inkling, was published in an anthology called The Speculative Book and his debut novel, A Murder Of Crows, has been published by Unbound.