3 Jul 2016

Falling Fast by Neil Broadfoot

Falling Fast by Neil Broadfoot
Death from the Scott Monument
Falling Fast by Neil Broadfoot deserves a mention on any list of recent Scottish fiction, as well as honour in any list of current crime fiction. 

And as it's such a confident debut, we can be pretty sure that Neil Broadfoot will continue to rank.

Falling Fast is a story of high drama and violence, with roots in Rankin and a basis in Banks, and which boldly stabs at capturing a wide slice of Edinburgh life, from the establishment Tories of Stockbridge to the thugs and junkies of the schemes, all presented in one intertwined mess of criminality and dodgy-doing.

The plot is unravelled by 'story-hungry journalist' Doug McGregor who works at high speed piecing together the awful connections between a recently released rapist and a gallerist who in the first pages of the book makes a stunning plunge from the capstone of the Scott Monument.

Most amusing for any Scot is the obvious fact of the Scottish Tory MP in the story - a man not only with awful secrets to hide, but one who attempts to use power and influence to hide them. Add to this a cast of Edinburgh art-lovers, nightclub bouncers, media guys, the odd junkie and  cast of sarcastic and sexist cops, and you have a fair summary, not really of contemporary Edinburgh, but at least the place we imagine it to be in our crime fiction.

It's hard not to see Falling Fast by Neil Broadfoot as something of an extension of the Rankin world, and even though the book has (most would agree) more depth and complexity than the customary and regular Rankin. Of course, as a debut Falling Fast lacks something of the master's confidence at times, even though it explores the same waters.

But it's those waters that have become a problem, even for myself as a reviewer. How to write about crime in Edinburgh without at least begging a comparison with the Mighty Ranks? It doesn't seem to have phased Neil Broadfoot, who has produced something slightly more nuanced than the Rankin novels I have read, in a book that is far more coherent and which manages to pack in more in its pages than you could ever imagine.

Sometimes in crime thrillers, journalists are excellent surrogates for detectives - I'm thinking of Mikael Blomkvist in Stieg Larsson's Millenium series. The journalist Doug McGregor in Falling Fast is more of a typical heavy-drinking hack than Blomkvist but he has an essential moral centre that makes him a reliable scout when it comes to fact-finding and aside from his own legwork and digging in the archives, he relies on co-operation from a friendly colleague in the force - Susie Drummond - who has the entire patrolman patriarchy of Gayfield Square to contend with when she is not dashing from clue to clue.

The chapters in Falling Fast are especially short and I think the word would be - punchy. This is great as it allows the sort of fast scene and point of view changing that is useful when building this kind of mystery.

On the downside, if you are one of those folks who like to look to the last chapter - Chapter 49 in this case - you'll find it presents a handy pub conversation which runs over 13 pages, during which the entire plot - missing information - gaps and mysteries - are all explained in a dialogue as Susie and Doug enjoy a drink to celebrate the end of the case. This isn't really how these sort of books are supposed to climax, but the ride is so good, it seems almost like an epilogue.

And it doesn't make what happens before that any less intriguing. For a crime thriller, Falling Fast is pretty ambitious, esepcially insofar as it attempts to bring an exceptionally large and well-presented cast to bear on its grisly action, 

The fights and the frights, the darkness and the violence, are all expressed well and make Falling Fast what it is. It's deserved the praise it's had because it's these elements that give it its own flavour and edge.

He had just enough time to register something glinting in the corner of his eye before his head exploded in agony. Darkness rushed in on him like a wave as he crumpled to the cold ground, blood spurting from his skull and soaking his hair. He cried out, but couldn't be sure if he would be heard over the roaring that seemed to fill the world. He tried to get up, tried to move, but couldn't. It was as if he'd been disconnected from his body.

Like the reporter who leads its chase, Falling Fast works against constant deadlines, which is a neat trick and ensures that it's never dull.

On top of this, the insider view of the newspaper business makes a brilliant change from the well-researched police canteens and procedural meetings that are more standard in crime fiction. The newspaper offices are a different sort of police force and although there are always a bevy of journalists dotted around any example of crime fiction, it's good again to see them to the fore.

So I would agree with others that this debut is good news for Scottish crime fiction, which surely has a life-long star in Neil Broadfoot.

Neil Broadfoot at Saraband