Published this week, Cruel Summer is the direct sequel to the critically acclaimed In the Silence from 2018 (you can read my review of that one, here) and the second in instalment in a prospective Kelvingrove Park trilogy from Glaswegian crime novelist, M.R. Mackenzie.
Whereas Mackenzie’s first novel focused on academic-turned-investigator Anna Scavolini, Cruel Summer shifts the focus to Anna’s lifelong friend Zoe Callahan. Anyone who has read In the Silence will know that, despite their bonds, the two women couldn’t be more different. Whereas Anna was scholarly, well-travelled and middle-class, Zoe is a flame-haired, down-to-earth Glasgow girl whose philosophy for life seems to stem from the Cyndi Lauper hit, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun‘. However, finding herself stuck in the kind of job that would make a skivvy feel superior and in a relationship that is treading more water than your average synchronised swimmer, you could perhaps forgive Zoe for looking for something to spice up her life as the novel commences. But taking up a dangerous crusade for justice single-handed might not prove to be the wisest of decisions – especially when you consider that there’s the small matter of the imminent trial of the previous novel’s culprit, which Zoe of course has a vested interest in.
Dominic Ryland is a rising political star within the Scottish Conservative party but, beneath that respectable veneer lies a cruel and twisted animal who gets his kicks assaulting women. When Zoe stumbles upon one of his victims – a high-class escort who has been both physically and sexually assaulted – she encourages the woman to go to the police and report the crime. It’s a decision that leads to devastating consequences, as it becomes clear that some people will do anything to preserve their reputations.
Whereas In the Silence was set in the snowy depths of an unforgiving Scottish winter, this sequel is set three years later at the height of an oppressive and uncharacteristically sweltering heatwave. But turning up the heat, in more ways than one, is not the only difference that Mackenzie makes. In his decision to reposition Anna to the sidelines of this tale and bringing Zoe to the fore, he provides both a more personable lead character and less formal and formulaic crime thriller heroine. In this genre, we are used to characters who are highly skilled, plucky and resourceful, hugely courageous or, as serving police officers, simply have the law on their side with back-up only a call away. In Zoe, Mackenzie delivers a leading lady who is acutely aware at every faltering turn just how out of her depth she is (amusingly, she approaches her investigative work into Ryland’s past in the same way that she approached her thesis for her somewhat useless degree in Media Studies, whilst even the hot weather seems against this pale-skinned, freckly, redheaded Sissy Spacek look-a-like) yet she continues anyway simply because of the desire to see justice done; which, for those who read the previous novel, ought to be understandable. This makes for a more emotive and sympathetic purpose at the heart of both character and story. As Zoe begins to uncover more and realises she needs help, she turns to the enigmatic Fin, an out and proud lesbian from Ireland with a vivid vocabulary. But in a world where trust can easily be misplaced, is Fin really all that she seems, and will her help prove to be more of a hindrance in the long run?
Speaking of colourful vocabulary, the decision to make Zoe the central protagonist pays dividends here too. Whilst In the Silence was certainly not short of the kind of colloquial slang and wit that made it unmistakably identifiable as Glasgow, these were more or less kept to Zoe’s dialogue. Here the vernacular makes its way more steadily into Mackenzie’s narrative voice, making for a richer, more satisfying and original read. There’s a nice line in simile too (“Like oil and water, some things just weren’t meant to go together” he observes at the prospect of Mariah Carey’s rendition of Auld Lang Syne, whilst the appearance of a glamourous looking woman in Zoe’s neighbourhood is remarked upon thus; “she looked about as out of place on Dumbarton Road as a condom wrapper on the steps of the Vatican”), but, as Cruel Summer takes us to some very dark and serious places, the humour never overbalances the drama or sense of danger. Mackenzie is more than just a thriller writer, he’s a social commentator; one who, just like his characters, possesses a noticeable passion for life’s inequalities. Just as with his sophomore effort, this sequel is again a tale of the haves and the have-nots, and how the world (and more importantly the law) is heavily stacked in the favour of the former; a camp that is of course often exclusively male. It’s not one hundred percent necessary to have read In the Silence before Cruel Summer but, taken together, they present a sadly all too authentic insight into the failings of both the criminal justice system and society as a whole. In my previous review I said that In the Silence was a fine addition to the Tartan Noir genre. Cruel Summer sees him ahead of the field.