Written by Gordon Ferris — Over the last five years, Gordon Ferris has established himself as a distinctive Scottish voice in crime fiction. He’s written one successful series featuring private detective Danny McRae, and another with investigative journalist Douglas Brodie. Truth Dare Kill was his debut, though it’s worth revisiting as Ferris has recently been given a push in the US, where crime fans may well have noticed his novels appearing in bookshops.
Inevitably, Ferris has been compared to another successful Scottish crime writer. ‘The new Ian Rankin,’ screams the quote from the cover of Truth Dare Kill, though it’s a little misleading as you’ll soon discover it’s a story set in London in 1946 rather than modern day Edinburgh.
McRae is undeniably Scottish, though. An ex-copper from Glasgow, he’s a broken man after a traumatic war experience and is getting by as a private investigator based in Camberwell. McRae suffers from amnesia and blackouts having being inflicted with a serious head injury by his Nazi prison guards. He was captured towards the end of the War while undercover with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) assisting the French Resistance.
Part of the reason he’s stayed in London is to try and regain the year of his life – before and after his war mission – that’s been expunged from his memory. And at least his SOE training comes in handy when he needs to pick a lock.
Unfortunately, he’s not too welcome in the capital, where Scotland Yard’s brutish Detective Inspector Herbert Wilson warns him not to meddle. There’s no chance of McRae heeding that advice, though, as he soon becomes embroiled in a mystery following a visit by the glamorous blonde, Kate Graveney. “I think I’ve killed a man,” she confesses.
If that opening sounds like a cliché of detective fiction, Ferris is clearly aware of his literary antecedents. Truth Dare Kill begins with a quote from Raymond Chandler and McRae then compares himself – unfavourably – to Philip Marlowe. Chandler’s detective would certainly not have been caught out having to feed the electricity meter when an upper-class blonde comes calling for help.
McRae reveals later on that he became a private detective after borrowing Chandler’s novels from the library. We’re afforded this insight into McRae’s mind because Truth Dare Kill is narrated in the first person, for which Ferris displays a surprisingly sure touch in his debut novel. While some of the other characters are a bit thin, our troubled and obsessive investigator is funny and thrilling company. Ferris has clearly learned from the classics.
McRae’s case involves investigating Kate Graveney’s love life as well as his own past. The man she fears she might have killed had hit his head during a row – at which point an unexploded bomb went off. Having been treated in hospital herself, she’s now trying to find out what happened to her lover. However, the mystery deepens when she names him as Major Tony Caldwell, who recruited and trained McRae into SOE.
It’s fair to say that at this point the plot becomes fairly busy as McRae is caught up in another investigation into the murder of Soho prostitutes, as well as trying to cope with his blackouts and feelings towards another mystery woman who enters the scene. He begins to fear that he’s a Jekyll and Hyde character who can’t be sure of his own innocence when he enters a fugue state.
To his credit, Ferris doesn’t gloss over the prevailing attitudes that existed in this era. While McRae is a character that we generally warm to, he also holds some questionable opinions and admits to having slapped an ex-girlfriend. His behaviour and beliefs are part of what makes Truth Dare Kill such an evocative portrayal of London in the aftermath of World War II. This debut needed a little more finesse to maintain its absorbing mystery until the end, but it’s a first novel of which any crime writer would be proud.
Gallowglass, the fourth and final novel in the Douglas Brodie series, is published on 3 April.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars