I have just finished Margaret Kirk’s second Highland Noir book What lies Buried.
Margaret hooks you, in the first chapter, with a corpse uncovered on an Inverness construction site. With a bullet hole in its skull. A cold case, obviously, since it’s wearing World War Two dog tags, but an intriguing one, since the bones date from long after the end of the war. And why were they buried in a farm midden? Then, having made you wonder about the who-and-why of these seventy-year-old bones, you are plunged into an even darker crime: a ten-tear-old girl has been spirited away from a friend’s birthday party and has been missing for ten days.
The police team led by DI Lukas Mahler is under pressure: from the distraught parents, their superior officers, the press – and their own desperate feelings of responsibility and inadequacy. Not helped when the problem unexpectedly escalates.
Lukas is a detective with sharp suits, but no ego. An early morning runner with his own childhood trauma, who struggles to care for a mother whose mind is failing, it’s no wonder he is stalked by migraine headaches: an ice-pick of pain tapping at the base of his skull that tablets refuse to shift. Not that Lukas will let that stop him pursuing the bad guys, even if it earns him cracked ribs.
I enjoyed the quality of the writing, from fondly remembered Scottish words – and guiltily scoffed bakery products with a high-calorie content – to descriptions of Inverness and its steel and granite weather. Memories rushed back of pebble-dashed bungalows, with walls the colour of three-day-old porridge. I especially admired the picture of an alarmed construction worker belting up the track, hi-vis jacket billowing out behind him like a bairn playing at superheroes.
The characters are real people, with acid indigestion, a tendency to devour Jaffa cakes when stressed, and the misguided conviction that a Homer Simpson air freshener will banish the stink of cigarette smoke and fish and chip wrappers from inside of an unloved car. DS Ian Ferguson, a conscientious and loyal colleage, is a slob at heart. The sarcastic, shifty and jealous DE Andy Black clearly means trouble for Mahler.
Her women are good, from the pregnant CSI, easing herself from a muddy trench full of old bones, her pregnancy bump straining against the white Teletubby suit, to DC Nazreen Khan, who is suitably polite when slapped down for giving constructive advice to a superior, but no pushover:
‘Absolutely.’ She clicks her seat belt into place and gives him an earnest I’ll-try-harder kind of smile. ‘No disrespect, sir.’
‘Fine. We’ll leave it there, then.’
‘But, seeing we’re talking about respect…if I catch you staring at my tits again, you’ll get my knee where it hurts most. And then I’ll hit you with a harassment charge. Sir.‘
A disturbing feature is an on-line group of vigilantes, convinced they can do a better job than the police. A worrying glimpse into the world of warped minds and the harm social media can do.
The plot has more complexities than a piece of Fair Isle knitting, and a twist approaching the end almost made me throw down my needles. There is even an intriguing ‘H’ figure lurking in the background. The abduction of a small girl doesn’t make comfortable reading. It is every parent’s nightmare. But the book is enlightening on the toll taken on those investigating such hideous events, and the extent to which they genuinely care.
Margaret’s debut novel, Shadow Man, won the Good Housekeeping First Novel Competition in 2016 and was published by Orion in 2017. Proof that entering competitions can work, and that reading books that result from them can be totally gripping.