NR: Fallen Angel

I first encountered the work of Christopher Brookmyre when I got sent a copy of his sixth book, A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away (2001), to review for The Third Alternative (and you can find that review here), a comic novel about terrorism that had the misfortune to be released just before 9/11. Nonetheless I was so taken with his blend of humour and crime (think Carl Hiaasen with a Scottish accent and without the environmental preoccupations of his later works) that I checked out a couple more of his books under my own steam and thoroughly enjoyed them. Our love affair might have gone further, but horror and the demands of the reviewing life got in the way.

Now here we are twenty years later and with no reviewing commitments I’m free to cast my reading net as far and wide as I wish. Back in March I hauled in a catch of crime novels by Scottish authors and Brookmyre’s Fallen Angel (2019) was one of those books. In the years since we last met, Brookmyre has dipped a toe into the waters of both science fiction and horror, and though still most definitely belonging to the crime genre, Angel is a very different book to the ones I’ve read previously. The tone is far more serious and the humour has pretty much fallen by the wayside.

American Amanda is on what should probably be regarded as a gap year, though the term is never used. She is hired by lawyer Vince to help his partner Kirsten deal with her new baby while the family are on holiday at their villa in Portugal, but things go awry right from the start, with Vince missing their flight and incommunicado despite Kirsten’s best efforts to contact him. Often left to her own devices, Amanda gets caught up in the goings on at the neighbouring villa, where the Temple family are holding a family reunion after the death of patriarch Max. Sixteen years earlier the family was devastated by the disappearance (presumed dead) of Niamh, the child of Sylvia and Calum, and this is the first time since that fateful occasion that they have all come to the villa. The deceased Max had gained a certain fame as a pop psychologist and talking head, while Celia, the wife who survives him and matriarch of the family, was once an actress, and is still looking to reassert herself as somebody who is desirable. Daughter Sylvia now goes by the name Ivy, and is a hard nosed career woman in the PR industry, where she puts Max’s tricks to good use. Other family members are there to make up the numbers and the story unfolds along parallel tracks with scenes taking place in the present day (2018) and also the past (2002), the events of sixteen years previous haunting everyone and new facts thrown up about the fate of Niamh. And by the way, where the hell is Vince?

Brookmyre plays it straight and to devastating effect. The way in which details of the past are fed to Amanda and the reader is masterly, constantly wrong-footing us as we go along, offering up other suspects for the killing of Niamh, such as Svetlana, brother Rory’s girlfriend, and her connection to East European organised crime, or the slightly strange children of daughter Marion and Ken (I suspect Brookmyre was channelling Wednesday Addams here). As far as the plotting goes, the book is a delight, with family secrets that most would prefer to remain buried coming to light. Inevitably the circumstances and setting bring to mind the real life case of Madeleine McCann, but what makes Fallen Angel exceptional is the depth of characterisation, with each member of the cast brought to vivid life and, like Russian nesting dolls, containing surprises that make them all the more real as each layer of superficiality is peeled away.

Ivy/Sylvia is the star of the show, initially shown as callous and uncaring, but growing more sympathetic as the story progresses. We learn of events in her past that shaped her personality, and we come to see her public persona as a shell which she uses for protection. Celia is the one with a massive ego, unable to accept that husband Max is more famous than her, constantly seeking validation through controlling others and belittling them, using her sexual allure to seduce men, with even Ken, her daughter Marion’s partner, not out of bounds. Vince is the sexual predator, eyeing up the women who stay at the villa, having lustful thoughts about them all, including sixteen year old Sylvia, while wife Kirsten is initially pitched as a dumb blonde, but gains more substance as the story unfolds. Amanda is the innocent abroad, at first attracted by these people who seem to have everything, but then learning about the rot that underlies their glamorous existence. Adding yet more depth to the mix, are the quotations and thoughts of Max Temple, his ideas on how social units should function interjected at every opportune moment, so that even though his death is the ostensible reason for the family to gather his presence dominates in the present day as much as it did in the past.

I guessed part of the ending, the solution to the mystery of Niamh’s disappearance if not the exact details of how it was done, but by that point I was so wrapped up in the lives of these people, had come to believe in and care about them, such considerations were of secondary importance. Overall Fallen Angel is a superb crime novel with considerable depth from a writer at the top of his game, and last time I looked it was ranking #3 on my top twenty books of the year so far list. A new list will appear at the start of next month, so check back if you have any interest in seeing if Mr Brookmyre continues to hold his own.

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