Top critical review
10 people found this helpful
An experiment that doesn't really work for a new reader
on 29 May 2012
I know that Quintin Jardine has an army of fans, but I hadn't read any of his books until I bought a copy of his stand-alone novel 'The Loner' after reading a favourable press review. I was much impressed, and would have given that novel a four, or possibly even a five star rating, so when 'Funeral Note' appeared in the Amazon listings I had no hesitation in ordering a copy.
There are two basic plotlines in the novel. The first begins with an anonymous call to the Edinburgh Police Communications Centre, giving the precise location at which a body has been buried in the woods surrounding Mortonhall Crematorium. The second begins with an aborted surveillance operation at a pub in Slateford. The two suspects duly meet, but one of them receives a phone call and immediately disappears from the scene. The call is traced to a public telephone close to Gayfield Square Police Station. Is a rogue cop working for the dark side? Both threads develop interestingly, and ultimately lead to a cliffhanger climax.
This is the twenty-second novel in the Skinner series, and it is prefaced by a six-page explanation of the way in which the series has developed in the author's mind. He reflects upon the progressive development of his characters, and makes the valid observation that because the lead character holds high rank, there will necessarily be a large cast of supporting players, both within and outside of the police establishment. At one point, he even draws an analogy between the series and TV soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders, and says that he is comfortable with such comparisons. It seems that the majority of the Skinner novels have been conventional third-party narratives, but this and the preceding novel have been, to a degree, experimental. 'Grievous Angel' was a retrospective novel, set 15 years earlier in Skinner's career and written as a first-person narrative. 'Funeral Note' goes a stage further; it's again in the first person, but told through the eyes of several different narrators - in fact, 'several' isn't an adequate word: there are eighteen indviduals delivering first-person accounts.
I think I need to stress again that I'm new to the series. I am very well aware that previous acquaintanceship with the characters would very likely colour my views, and potential readers who are already Skinner fans would be well advised to rely on the reviews provided by those writing from the same standpoint. I can only reflect my own reaction to the book, and I have reservations about it, which I'll try to explain.
First of all, the author's reference to TV soaps is apposite, though I think a closer comparison could be made with soap-style
dramas like Holby City or, in the crime genre, Scott and Bailey; dramas in which the ostensible subject matter - hospital life or police procedures - is diluted by the attention given to the personal lives of the characters. In the TV context, this may not be so important; the programmes pick up a following for what they are, though the audience may not be the same as that which would be attracted by a more genre-focused drama. With a book, the situation is rather different; crime novels are bought by those who enjoy the crime genre, and with this purchase I felt cheated. Coming cold to the series, I had little interest in the peripheral social relationships, and the early chapters failed to draw me in. I accept that there was ample backstory to bring me up to speed, but much of it was insufficiently relevant to make me WANT to be brought up to speed.
Secondly, the narration technique didn't work for me. Especially in the early part of the book, the same events are re-told from different viewpoints and this, together with the time spent on personal relationships and interactions, necessarily means that the development of the crime investigation, which I would expect to be at the core of the book, is painfully slow. The narrative runs to 385 pages, but the investigation doesn't gather any real momentum until the last hundred pages.
Finally, and no doubt influenced by the above considerations, most of the primary charactters don't strike me as being at all likeable. Skinner comes across as being extremely arrogant, as do some of his close associates - though I admit that this is a characteristic of (too) many of the senior police officers with whom I have come into contact. It's pretty much an unwritten law of crime fiction that the reader's empathy should be with the good guys; that happens in this case only because the bad guys are too remote to excite much reaction either way.
All of which is a pity. The author is a very skilful writer; his prose flows and reads easily and convincingly. I respect his courage in experimenting with an established series; without innovation the body of crime fiction would be much the poorer. Unhappily, this time the innovation simply doesn't work, at least through the eyes of a new reader. I didn't really enjoy the book, which would normally suggest a two-star rating, but there's an underlying quality about Jardine's writing which pulls my rating up to a neutral three stars. As suggested above, if you're already a Skinner fan you should ignore this review. If, like me, you are new to the series, this certainly isn't the place to start. I'd suggest that you buy a copy of one of the earlier novels and take it from there; that's what I now propose to do.
I appreciate tha a lot of people won't share my views; if you are among them, I'd much appreciate a comment identifying which of those views you regard as unjustifiable.