Monday, August 5, 2013

Review of The Barber Surgeon’s Hairshirt by Douglas Lindsay (2001; reissued 2011, Blasted Heath)

After his exploits in The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, Barney is on the run accused of being one of Scotland’s worst serial killers.  Heading north from Glasgow he has made his way deep into the highlands using his barbering skills to leave a trail of neatly trimmed heads in his wake and nobody with a bad word to say about him.  Running out of money and places to hide he enrols in an isolated monastery cut off from the rest of the world.  Shortly after his arrival the brothers start to drop dead.  It seems like Barney is a natural catalyst and fall guy for serial killers.  With bodies piling up and the snow coming down the only solution to his predicament is to catch the real killer, a task he’s wholly unsuited to.  Meanwhile, DI Joel Mulholland and DC Erin Proudfoot are hot on his trail, and hot for each other, their unconsummated flirting preceding them as they systematically visit every hotel and B&B in northern Scotland.  The question is whether they’ll find Thomson before all thirty monks are murdered and whether they’ll be able to keep acting like monks during their search.

The Barber Surgeon’s Hairshirt (originally published as The Cutting Edge) is an outrageous farce from start to finish.  The tale is divided into two parallel storylines that eventually collide: DI Joel Mulholland and DS Erin Proudfoot journey across northern Scotland hunting the notorious barber Barney Thomson who’s wanted in connection to multiple murders; and Thomson’s refuge in a remote monastery full of men hiding from the world, amongst whom lurks two serial killers, one accused, one real.  Lindsay amplifies all the elements of the plot -- the brooding romance between Mulholland and Proudfoot, the trail of local residents who didn’t feel the need to tell the police when they gave Thomson lodging, the tabloid headlines that accuse Thomson of every crime and missed goal in Scotland’s history, the murders in the monastery, and the bleak winter weather -- and liberally doses the narrative with humour.  For the first half of the novel this works really well.  The story is a funny spoof on crime fiction, told through an engaging voice.  In the second half the telling becomes a bit tedious, repetitive and trying as Lindsay demonstrates his cleverness by spewing a dictionary and quotes, and the plot gets stretched to breaking point as it becomes more and more ridiculous.  Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable ride overall, especially Mulholland and Proudfoot’s journey, and the next book in the series is queued up on my kindle.

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