WORDS like “prolific” scarcely do her justice. This is the sixteenth novel in Lin Anderson’s series following the adventures of Glasgow-based forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod, but rather than seeming tired or overstretched she writes like an author who’s just getting into her stride.
This time around, the plot is sparked off by two seemingly unrelated incidents hundreds of miles apart. In Glasgow, a woman burns to death in the back green of a tenement. Meanwhile, the ferocious storm Birka blows an abandoned Russian cargo ship, the Orlova, into the waters around Orkney.
Inspection of the unmanned vessel reveals that it’s been modified to serve as the arena for fatal tournaments in which remote audiences log on to watch fights to the death. There are no clues as to who runs Go Wild, the company that owns it, and apart from three dead bodies the ship is empty – or is it?
Whatever connects the shadowy figures behind these games with the immolated woman in Glasgow, the Metropolitan Police are very interested, and seem determined to snatch the case away from Police Scotland.
Although it’s nominally the Rhona MacLeod series, the Killing Tide is very much an ensemble piece. If anything, the lion’s share of the action goes to her colleague DS Michael McNab, whose girlfriend’s announcement that she wants an open relationship brings out a disturbingly stalkerish side to him while he’s doggedly pursuing the case and getting a couple of severe beatings for his trouble.
MacLeod’s posse all have extensive backstories and involved relationships stretching back many books, but Anderson makes it relatively easy for new readers to hop on board.
One of the most compelling and important characters is in fact one who is making her first (though possibly not her last) appearance in a Rhona MacLeod novel: Ava Clouston, an investigative journalist based in London but brought back, by the deaths of her parents, to Orkney, where she has to figure out what to do with the family farm.
Her brother Dougie is dead against selling it, but at 17 he’s too young to run it himself and Ava is impatient to get back to her globetrotting, high-stakes lifestyle. The arrival of the Orlova, however, presents them both with far more urgent concerns.
The presence of Ava and her journalist colleague (and sometime lover) Mark, along with their careful security precautions, ramps up the cloak-and-dagger element of a crime novel that already has shades of a conspiracy thriller. As the action zips between Orkney, Glasgow and London, the cast realise that they’ve been caught up in a scheme involving powerful and dangerous people, and they’re never quite sure who can be trusted.
For the most part, Anderson’s prose is effortlessly fluid and transparent, clunkiness rarely arising. As is so often the way with thrillers and police procedurals, the dialogue can lapse from time to time into a slightly forced and unconvincing tone, but less often with Anderson than with many of her peers.
It’s hard not to have some quibbles – the continual use of the word “mobile” in place of the now-universal “phone” starts to grate after a while, and one wonders why, if they spend so much time there, MacLeod and her crew invariably call their regular hangout “the jazz club” rather than referring to it by name.
After taking 400 pages to get there, the ending is somewhat low-key considering the scale of the antagonists’ operation and the violence and loss of life they’ve inflicted to protect it. But it’s an assured page-turner, with the care Anderson has taken with the delineation and development of her characters very much in evidence.