Even for leading Edinburgh crime reporter, Doug McGregor – a man who lives off the brutality of others – the sight of his editor’s organs spilling onto the desk before him is not easily forgotten. Nor should it be, the killer’s shots announcing the start of a deadly race against time. No matter how random they initially appear, the deaths that ensue all lead back to “The Tribune’s” offices; as the body-count rises, what is left behind is a macabre trail rich in journalistic intrigue. Yet, disturbed by visceral flashbacks, and forbidden from investigating a case so close to him– along with fellow detective Susie Drummond –, Doug departs the capital to seek solace in an island vacation. For those familiar with Neil Broadfoot’s debut novel – 2011’s Falling Fast – it should come as little surprise that The Storm is not far behind.
Broadfoot intends to deliver thrills and takes little time in doing so. From the opening exchanges – which unfold in a press-room environment informed surely by the author’s journalistic background – everyday, familiar backdrops are invested with a sense of danger; the unremittingly grimy, colourless interiors merge into a menacing blur of shock and thrills. Assured, confident and with remarkable clarity of purpose, his prose exudes a powerful urgency, skilfully stitching together insights from various perspectives to effect both tension and cohesion. The author rarely lingers, delivering intensified, relentless violence in short, sharp thrusts. Tightening the dramatic coil with every passing page, dramatic vignettes from his characters’ lives escape being weighed down by unnecessary exposition. An understandably heavy dose of typecasting ensures that they quickly become familiar. Nevertheless, twists abound and even the most mundane encounters are saturated with a sense of mortal peril. Across the sea and on the mainland, the narrative may roam, but never does the novel’s focus get left behind. Channelling its murderous antagonist, the action grasps at the reader in a dogged, targeted, and apparently inescapable fashion. The effect is mesmerising.
Then, when Broadfoot’s grip is at its tightest – his pace breathless – he lets go, leaving his narrative to stumble somewhat . His attempts to regain what he has lost seem forced, and his conclusion seems unconvincing as it is bewildering. The timeworn mechanics of ‘gritty’ late-night cop dramas, an uninteresting love-triangle and the malevolent machinations of barely developed characters – such as ‘Edinburgh’s biggest gangster’, Dessie Banks – are invoked, with Broadfoot’s potted delineation revealing plotting which is even messier than the murders of which he writes. After resolving the central mystery, loose-ends persist. Conclusions and cliff-hangers alike are doled out to various unresolved – and largely unwelcome – plot elements. The romantic subplot can scarcely be described as ‘intrigue’ and forms the heaviest drag on Broadfoot’s literary wheel. Doug might have a decision to make between his two female aides but a lack of narrative development renders his choice inconsequential. Detours into the mind of the killer heighten tension, but the overwrought depiction of an inner battle with mental ‘demons’ comes closer to cliché than chilling. More disconcerting than any of the crime scenes is an underdeveloped father-son bond between Doug’s editorial mentor and his protégé. The younger reporter’s eventual ruminations on fatherhood profers accidental comic relief greater than any of the author’s blunt – and not particularly bruising – jibes at post-referendum newspaper and national culture.
Taut, unrelenting and undeniably entertaining, The Storm is, for the most part, a mystery worthy of the name. With a rhythmical chapter structure and concise, evocative prose, it rarely drags. Yet some uninteresting characters and directionless plotting makes it ultimately a flimsy mystery in want of a conclusion.
Ed: An Interview with Neil Broadfoot at the 2014 Dundee Literary Festival can be seen HERE.