Written by Craig Robertson — Random, Robertson’s first novel, is a firm fixture on my top 10 crimes novels. Genuinely chilling and with one of the most retch-inducing murders ever committed to paper it marked him out as an author to watch. His next, Snapshot, continued in the same strong vein. It fleshed out DS Rachel Narey, who was an interesting but peripheral figure in Random, and introduced police photographer Tony Winter. Now they’re both back for another outing in Cold Grave.
In 1993, during a period of unusually cold weather, Lake Menteith in Stirling freezes over and tourists and locals alike flock to the area to enjoy the rare occurrence. But as the day draws into evening and the crowd begins to thin a couple walk across the ice towards the island at the centre of the lake. Only the man comes back. A month later the young woman’s body is discovered by ground staff, bludgeoned beyond recognition and degraded by the elements. The police christen her Lily. An exhaustive investigation follows, led by DI Alan Narey, but Lily is never indentified and her murderer is never caught.
Two decades on Alan Narey is in a nursing home, slowly succumbing to dementia. His failure to close the case – the last major one he handled before retirement – is still haunting him through his befuddlement. His daughter Rachel, desperate to find him some peace of mind, decides to reopen the Lily of the Lake investigation. With the crime scene outside of her jurisdiction she has to tackle it unofficially, so she takes her on-the-quiet lover Tony Winter for a surprise weekend away to a hotel overlooking the Lake of Menteith and starts stirring up the waters.
Laurence Paton, the man Rachel’s father always suspected of the murder, is found dead. So, Rachel steps up her investigation, bringing in Tony’s uncle Danny, another ex-copper with an array of contacts in Glasgow’s netherworld and the hardman credentials to get them talking. Rumour has it that Lily was a gypsy princess murdered for dating outside the community. The men find themselves entering into a bargain with a travelling family which could well put an end to both Tony and Rachel’s careers. They’re operating in secret, lying to their superiors and housebreaking for information. Then an old friend of Paton’s is attacked and they discover that he wasn’t the only person involved in Lily’s death. There are long buried secrets threatening to burst open and someone is prepared to kill to stop that happening.
Craig Robertson’s journalistic past is serving him well as a crime writer, with tight prose, ripped-from-the-headlines plots and characters who you feel could step straight off the page. In Rachel Narey he’s created a refreshingly realistic copper, gimmick-free and strong without being reduced to a ball busting cliché. But Tony Winter steals this book. A police photographer, with an unhealthy obsession with death and a ‘trophy’ wall of favourite shots at home, he is more disturbing than the killers in most books. In the hands of a lesser writer this would be a complete turn off, but Robertson presents him as a documenter of death in the mould Weegee or Robert Capa, driven but perfectly self-aware.
Cold Grave is Robertson’s strongest book yet. Engaging characters, sharp writing and a killer plot which builds to a memorable denouement. Buy it, buy it now.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 5 Stars