Death cleaning is a sad necessity we don’t want to think too much about. The clearing of the homes of those who die unmourned and unmissed is carried out by local council workers like Grace McGill. It happens every day of the week. It’s something we’re all happy to know happens as long as it’s not talked about. Craig ‘CS’ Robertson has realised there’s a huge potential for a dark and haunting story in this. The reality is poignant but there’s something macabre about it too and Grace’s story conveys both superbly. The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill is a gripping read.
Because of her job, Grace wants to remain anonymous, to be the woman in the cafe quietly sipping her coffee and going unnoticed by the world around her as she goes about her duties. Not so Annie, who only leaves her house in search of a chat and she’s lighted on Grace. Unwilling to open up to Annie, Grace gives her a false name and claims she’s a mobile hairdresser. A little white lie. Her next appointment is with Mr Agnew but he’s beyond worrying about callers being on time – he’s dead.
Grace McGill knows Glasgow and she knows the tenement in Partick where Mr Agnew lived. His body was only discovered because of a water leak after five months undetected. When the police took Thomas Agnew away two days ago there were no apparent suspicious circumstances. When Grace arrives the smell of death remains. It’s her job to do deal with that in a process called bioremediation. She begins with a prayer – it’s all about respect for the dead. All these people who die alone still have a story, a life lived, well or badly, who knows? Grace will collect mementoes in boxes and try to get them delivered to distant relatives or friends if possible. What’s left will be sold or destroyed.
In Mr Agnew’s flat, Grace is drawn to some old photos of a group of friends taken in Rothsey decades ago. Her interest in Agnew is typical of her compassion, her colleague Harry Blair would say.
Intrigued, Grace attends Agnew’s funeral where she meets two of his old friends, Bob and Jackie, and practically quizzes them about their pal. Both are cagey about the past even though they are in the photo, which fascinates her even more. Someone paid a lot for this funeral but Bob and Jackie deny any knowledge of it. Why would someone do that for a lonely old man? It has to be more than a simple case of charity.
The next time Grace comes across Bob Meacham, he’s dead and she’s clearing his flat. Coincidence? After all they were both elderly. While her colleagues and the police think Bob’s is just another lonely old death, Grace is suspicious. There’s link, a very small thing, apart from the fact that they were friends. When she reports her suspicions the police smile politely but are dismissive – they have no intention of taking this sad little woman seriously.
Grace is still caring for her own father, a brute with a wicked tongue. The old man persists in making life tough for her. Grace decides to investigate Bob’s death for herself. Is she onto something, does she know more than she’s saying about why the deaths appear suspicious, or is she just a lonely fantasist? Well, around the time the photograph in Rothsey was taken of Bob, Jackie and Agnew, a girl went missing. Grace thinks there might be a connection. The disappearance is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.
Then there’s Grace’s hobby. When she gets home from a job she makes a model of the rooms her clients die in. Agnew’s bedroom is modelled in 1:16 scale. This is more than a pastime – it’s cathartic for her. Every detail down to the newspapers by the bed are reproduced. Her little models are almost art. Could they also be a clue?
Robertson has an eye for detail and this is a very colourful and vivid novel. Grace is alone but she’s a strong woman, carrying her own burden of the past. The whole idea of woman cleaning the scene of a death gleaning something the police and everyone else have missed is fascinating. Robertson relishes drawing us into the vaguely gory truth of each lonely death and its aftermath. This is not an entirely original idea, it’s been done on film and TV before but perhaps not with such style and panache in the storytelling. The crime scene clean up has become a trope in crime fiction but Robertson has his own twist – much more personal and intimate thanks to Grace.
It’s very cleverly plotted, we care about Grace, even before we get what her real interest in the dead men is. Its gripping, intense and atmospheric. It’s an interesting rumination on lonely deaths. Yes, there’s a big, dirty, dark story here but pass a thought for the victims in life.
For another excellent read that poignantly muddles through memories and the dark secrets of the path, try Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Craig Robertson’s standalonds The Photographer and Murderabilia are also worth checking out.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars