In the Silence is the 2018 debut novel of Glaswegian author M.R. Mackenzie from publisher Bloodhound Books. It has been described as a fast-paced, compelling crime mystery that will appeal to fans of authors like Mark Billingham, Stuart Macbride and Mark Edwards and is, to my mind, a fine addition to the Tartan Noir genre. It reached number 2 in Amazon’s Scottish crime thrillers bestseller chart.
The story concerns former Glasgow girl now Rome-based academic Dr Anna Scavolini, who returns home in the run up to Christmas 2009 for the birthday of her best friend from school, redheaded party girl Zoe. Within hours of touching down, Anna not only meets up with her school crush but she goes on to find his dead body in snowy Kelvingrove Park! With the police alternating in treating her as a suspect and an irritant, Anna feels she has no option but to investigate the murder herself but, as the bodies start to stack up and it becomes clear a serial killer is in their midst, Anna may come to regret her impulsive decisions.
McKenzie, an independent Blu-Ray/DVD producer, essayist and expert in Italian giallo (he contributed a chapter on the subject for Cult Cinema: An Arrow Video Companion) has delivered a real page turner of a book. I know its somewhat cliched to say such a thing but I genuinely haven’t read a crime novel that has kept me both gripped and guessing such as this one did in a very long time. Mackenzie’s flair for a gripping storyline is apparent in a central mystery that is densely populated by red herrings, and it is matched only by his knack for both setting and dialogue. Just like the very best in Tartan Noir, Mackenzie’s novel is set in a recognisable and atmospheric Scottish city, in this case Glasgow, and it boasts an ear for the dialect and wit of that area. He gives his best lines to the character of Zoe, who provides some much needed light relief in what becomes a strong and bloody tale of revenge and redemption. With themes including gender inequality, the inherent failings of the justice system, rape, domestic abuse and mental illness, In the Silence is (like the very best work of Scottish mystery author Denise Mina – in particular her Garnethill trilogy), is a novel which possesses a strong social conscience and is one that does not shy away from the big issues; often in powerful, uncompromising detail. With that in mind, it’s undoubtedly a story that therefore needs a character like Zoe in order to balance out the drama, and remind us that ordinary life is continuing in parallel to the dark underbelly of the city.
But what of Dr Scavolini herself? Well, I’ve seen some reviews elsewhere that say she’s a little unlikeable (albeit with good reason as it soon becomes clear) but personally I don’t see that criticism all that much. Perhaps she comes across as a little aloof because she’s effectively a stranger in her hometown, and clearly the chalk to Zoe’s more down to earth cheese. But I actually found it very easy to sympathise with Anna right from the off, especially when she arrives in frozen Glasgow for Zoe’s party and is all but ignored by the party girl and left to her own devices on the corner of the dancefloor for the whole night! Bit off that, Zoe! The revelation that Anna has her own problems, namely bipolar disorder and is rather foolishly foregoing her pills, is sensitively and intelligently handled, adding a texture to both some of her subsequent actions and her social interactions that feels authentic. If I had one criticism regarding this side of her character it’s that I’d actually liked a little more time focused on the implications and some greater clarity on her initial decision making, but I guess the central mystery has to come first.
All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable debut novel that has much promise for the future. I am very pleased to see that M.R. Mackenzie has returned to what lurks in the silence of Glasgow with the release of Cruel Summer, a sequel featuring Zoe in a much more central role which I’ll be reviewing shortly. So do yourself a favour and buy this book, and then buy Cruel Summer. They’re perfect holiday reading. Just don’t have nightmares!