Let’s hope the political shenanigans James McCrone uncovers in Bastard Verdict stay squarely in the fictional realm, but, really . . . And Polly Stewart’s The Good Ones shows the warping power of true-crime obsessions.
Bastard Verdict by James McCrone
Thriller author James McCrone must have had his crystal ball turned up high back in 2014 when he wrote the first in his four-part series of political thrillers, Faithless Elector. The fourth, Bastard Verdict, is just out and paints another frightening picture of the way electoral politics might devolve in the current ruthless climate.
This time, he focuses his story around the doubts about the 2014 Scottish Referendum on independence. Voters who said ‘Yes’ wanted to leave the United Kingdom ; those who said ‘no’ wanted to stay. Strong arguments and opinions on both sides. Powerful forces in London wanted Scotland to stay, and a few well-positioned men were not above some pretty dirty tricks to make sure the vote went in their favor. In this novel, a a second referendum on this same question is looming, and the behind-the-scenes cabal fears its past maneuverings are getting a too-close examination.
Into this political minefield strolls McCrone’s protagonist, Imogen Trager, an FBI agent on leave in Scotland for a year to do some research on referenda politics. You’d think that exposing the Faithless Elector case would have put her in the Bureau’s good graces. Quite the contrary. She’s been shunted to a backwater post in the election integrity unit and her bosses are only too glad to ship her across the Atlantic.
McCrone expertly establishes the story’s setting in several Scottish locales, betraying an intimate knowledge of the terrain and the culture, the pubs, Glasgow’s gangster vibe. He uses Scottish dialect is just enough to make you feel right there with Imogen as the deadly cat-and-mouse game begins.
As we’ve learned in so many political fiascos, the cover-up is more disastrous than the crime itself. As her opponents gear up for Round Two, she and her colleagues will lucky to stay one step—even one half-step—ahead of danger. Democracies require a lot of faith in the process, and McCrone consistently identifies ways that process can go off the rails. The trend line of electoral trickery, obfuscation, and, even violence makes this novel fair warning.
The Good Ones by Polly Stewart
One takeaway from Polly Stewart’s mystery/thriller The Good Ones is: “Everyone’s a hero of their own story.” Narrator Nicola Bennett is fixated on what she sees as her own role in instigating the mysterious disappearance—and possible murder—of her best friend Lauren Ballard nearly twenty years earlier.
Nicola has newly returned to rural Virginia’s (fictional) Tyndall County to be with her dying mother, and now she’s fixing up her their dishevelled house for sale. This suggests a second theme, one from Southern writer Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go home again,” or at least in Nicola’s case, perhaps you oughtn’t to. Along the way, Stewart also provides food for thought regarding how people’s private pain is being turned into public entertainment via social media.
Nicola dwells on her and Lauren’s experiences on the high school soccer team, the drunken teenage parties and female rivalries, Lauren’s mean streak, and memories of her and Lauren’s relationships with two wealthy brothers. Then one night when the brothers were out of town, Lauren disappeared.
The wealth of detail about their teen years contrasts with surprisingly sparse filling out of Nicola’s present life, except for the lusty affair that develops between her and Lauren’s former husband. When she starts receiving harassing messages, Nicola seems only intermittently troubled by any threat they may represent. This dampens the story’s tension.
I’ve recently read several richly imagined books about rural Virginia, and Tyndall County lacks the rural noir vibe. Generally, Stewart’s characters live on the right side of the tracks. They have middle and upper-middle class preoccupations. Yet, in Nicola’s many flashbacks, she certainly captures the high school atmosphere and all its behavior-warping glory. With luck, if Nicola finds the answers she’s seeking, she can finally move on.