Thursday, 26 January 2017

Review: Hen's Teeth by Manda Scott

Recently I found myself in the rare “I have nothing to read!” situation. It was suddenly impossible to find something I could trust to be good. Crime/thrillers/mysteries are usually not my box of chocolate, so I hesitated a moment before buying “Hen’s Teeth”, Manda Scott’s debut novel. But I’ve loved her historical fiction and enjoyed the one crime novel I’ve read from her, so I thought it was a safe bet.

It was shortly after midnight when the phone rang.
I was lying in bed at the time, counting Artex ridges on the ceiling as a creative alternative to sheep and trying not to think too hard about life, the universe or anything.

That’s how it starts. Not only did I grin at the reference, but who among us has not experience such nights? I instantly related with the protagonist.

That sleepless night, Kellen Stewart learns that her ex-lover has died. The police are ready to close the case, believing the cause of death to be a heart attack. Kellen, however, suspects foul play, and together with her reckless pathologist friend, Lee, begins her own private investigation. Dangerous, she’s well aware of that – especially as more dead bodies turn up – but she’s not the kind of person who would let that stop her.

Scott has worked as a veterinarian, and that shows in the detailed description of the farm, where much of the story takes place, and particularly the animals who are nothing less than characters in this novel. Medical science and genetics form another important aspect, well-researched and fascinating (those with a weaker stomach might disagree). The Scottish scenery, both urban and rural, plays an important role. The ancient burial mounds and stormy nights lend the story their own magic.

I’ve always loved Scott’s vivid, evocative prose. This being her first novel, it is not yet quite the voice I’ve come to know. This is no criticism but an observation; it is interesting to see how a writer has developed. The characteristic wry wit is there, and I found myself, if not quite laughing, at least smiling several times.

Kellen Stewart is Scott’s typical strong female character, and that also goes for her friend Lee Adams. I really liked them both; down-to-earth, tough, loyal and... I want to say real, but I am not entirely certain if anyone could be quite that heroic in real life. Works very well in a novel, though! ūüėČ It is women who form the heart of the story, and their lives are all intertwined somehow: they are friends, lovers, ex-lovers, potential love interests. When things get tough, the personal relationships mean that the stakes are very high indeed – which, of course, does wonderful things to suspense and tension.

I felt like there was a lot of backstory here, but we only get a glimpse of it now and then. I know that that is how it should be done, but occasionally I wondered if I might have understood things (character motivation, relationships etc.) better, had I been more familiar with all that history. I actually had to check that this really was the first novel in the series and that I wasn’t missing something just because I hadn’t read the previous one(s).

Whether more of that history will be revealed in the sequels remains to be seen – I hope it will, but if not, I’ll enjoy the company of Kellen and others anyway.

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