Cover Your Tracks is the third of Claire Askew’s novels centred around Edinburgh DI, Helen Birch; what is more, it’s the third one I’ve read this year, which says something about the continuing quality of Askew’s writing. Her latest offering focuses on a subject which has been hovering in the wings of both her previous books, namely, missing people. Birch’s own life has been blighted by the disappearance of her younger brother Charlie, a character central to What You Pay For, Askew’s previous book, and, although by no means as troubling, her father has also been absent since she was twelve. Now she finds herself confronted by a belligerent Scottish American, Robertson Bennet, demanding that she locate his missing parents for him. Robertson, or Robert MacDonald as he was born, has had no contact with his family since 1986 and not finding them at the address he expected he considers it the polices’ job to locate them for him. Birch explains, rather more politely than I would have done, that this is not the polices’ job, but Bennet refuses to be put off and returns with what he claims is evidence that his mother may be in danger as a result of his father’s acknowledged aggressive behaviour. Subsequent enquiries confirm that George MacDonald is indeed known to the police but the whereabouts of both him and Bennet’s mother, Euphemia, more commonly called Pharmie, prove to be elusive. Helen‘s superior, DCI McLeod, considers the whole business to be a waste of her time and tells her to hand it over to DC Amy Kato, but Helen is intrigued, and never one to follow orders blindly, is unable to stay away from the case.
Following up on suggestions that George was well known in the train spotting community, it gradually becomes apparent that he had, in fact, ‘helped’ the police with their enquiries far more often than Birch and Kato originally realised, calling himself on those occasions, Ginger Mack, and that almost always his involvement had been in relation to missing women. The novel is punctuated by newspaper reports concerning the disappearance of some of these women, the oldest of which dates back a full fifty years. We read the stories of Suzannah (Suzie) Hay and Christine Turnbull and encounter the heartbreak of Maisie Kerr’s mother, still hoping for news of her daughter who vanished in 1999.
Despite McLeod’s edict, Helen becomes more and more involved, but at the same time she is distracted by what is happening to her brother, now serving a long jail sentence. Branded not only because of his association with a senior police officer but also as the man responsible for the jailing of a major crime lord, Charlie almost inevitably, has become the target of prison violence and when this lands him seriously injured in hospital the fact that he has retaliated and is therefore almost certainly looking at an extension to his sentence simply piles the pressure on for his sister. Not, however, that Helen needs Charlie’s help to feel that she is snowed under by family concerns, because after a gap of more than two decades her father has finally got in touch again and unsurprisingly her first thought is that any renewed contact is bound to bring trouble. Perhaps this is why, when an anonymous tipoff is received, Birch misinterprets the message.
And this, I’m afraid, is where I had a problem with the novel because I didn’t misinterpret the message. Despite the amount of crime fiction I read I am normally still hopeless at guessing who done it, let alone how and why but in the case of Cover Your Tracks I had the whole thing sorted from the moment that message arrived, which made the last two-fifths or so of the book something of an anti-climax. I tell you, I could have saved Police Scotland a fortune in digging time! Perhaps for some that would be a minor quibble, but I like the suspense ratcheted up to the end and so ultimately the book was something of a disappointment in terms of plot. Nevertheless, it’s still a very good read simply because of the quality of the writing and the development of the characters and I shall certainly not be put off reading the next in the series, whenever that should be available.
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for a review copy.