City of Strangers

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Read 24/06/2016-26/06/2016

Rating: 4 stars

LibraryThing review

I picked this up off the New Books shelf at my local library. The blurb on the back sounded really interesting, and there’s an advert on the last page for the author Louise Millar’s collective of female crime writers.

As soon as I started it, I was gripped. Main character Grace Scott is a photo journalist based in Edinburgh. She returns home from honeymoon to find a dead man in her new flat. Recently bereaved herself, she becomes obsessed with tracking down the man’s family so that they can grieve for him. Her husband doesn’t understand her obsession and isn’t best pleased when her investigations take her from Edinburgh to London, and then on to Amsterdam and Paris.

I found Grace a very likeable character. She has ended up in a bit of a rut, not using her skills to their full extent, settling for jobs on lifestyle magazines in order to keep the peace with her property developer husband. He designs music venues and bars, ignores Grace’s feelings about holding a flat warming days after the dead man is removed from the flat, goes on long golfing holidays and really doesn’t like Grace acting independently or going on her own solo trip.

Grace is a little gauche at first, which allows Millar to let her make mistakes that move the plot along. Grace is hesitant to carry on her investigation when she uncovers some disturbing facts about the supposed identity of the dead man, but she starts to work with a seasoned photo journalist and soon realises that this is the kind of work she wants to do. Her husband’s reaction naturally isn’t supportive. This dynamic between Grace, the other photo journalist and Grace’s husband made me think about how, in life as well as fiction, to be truly successful in a field, you have to be selfish and willing to put relationships to one side in order to pursue your goal. In an ideal world, your partner recognises that and supports you. In the real world, your relationships are dysfunctional or you end up compromising and not realising your dream. I’m thinking about writers, artists, heads of companies, politicians, journalists, surgeons, research scientists, people across a spectrum of jobs. It also made me think about how, generally speaking, men still expect to be the person who is supported by their partner and allowed to pursue their career, and women still maintain the status quo by compromising. There are theories about this being down to how children are raised, and the messages boys and girls receive about behaviour, with girls being encouraged to be polite and kind, to share and collaborate, while boys are encouraged to be assertive and pugnacious. Grace certainly starts the book in polite, collaborative mode. I would have liked her to be more self-confident, more assertive, but I think the way Millar pitched her made her more accessible as a character.

There is another strong female character in the book, Sula McGregor, a senior reporter who works with one of Grace’s friends. She contrasts starkly with Grace. She’s not quite full ball-breaking bitch, but she is certainly dogged in her pursuit of a story. Millar does well not to make her unlikeable. I think, in the hands of a male writer, she would be more of a bitch. Millar makes her interesting and someone you can understand in the context of the work she does. She investigates the discovery of two bodies stacked on top of each other in a naturally formed shaft on a cliff outside Edinburgh.

The book is very tense and well-paced. There were moments when I gasped out loud in public at turns the story took, and the way the plot unfurled kept me guessing as Grace exposed more of the mystery around the dead man and things happening in her investigation started to join up with that being carried out by Sula. Towards the end, some of the assumptions I’d made about characters were shown to be wrong but the mystery was retained. As the tension ramped up, little things made my stomach flutter with anxiety. The appearance of a man on a beach. The turn of a key in a lock. The things they signified, knowing what Millar had allowed me to know. This is why I love crime fiction.

I was reading the book over the period of the EU Referendum as well, so Grace’s ease of movement around Europe took on a strange future nostalgia for me, and the sub-plot of migrant workers and people working illegally also felt amplified by the Referendum campaign and result.

One thing I didn’t understand, though, was why a boy whom Grace encountered in Amsterdam was referred to as Luuk while Grace was talking to him but as his mother took him away was suddenly called Johann. Bad editing, presumably, because he didn’t reappear as a character. It confused me for a moment.

That small slip aside, I really enjoyed this book and will read more by Millar on the strength of it.

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