Sunday, November 3, 2013

Hen's Teeth by Manda Scott

Kellen Stewart is a therapist who on returning from a lengthy sojourn abroad is confronted with the death of a former lover, Bridget Donnelly. She soon learns that while she was away deliberating on her future as well as her relationship with her partner Janine, Bridget’s brother, Malcolm had also died.
Kellen is unsatisfied with the coroner’s report that determined that Bridget had committed suicide. Soon, Kellen becomes embroiled in the seedy under belly of the city of Glasgow: and Bantam hens.
Kellen Stewart becomes amateur detective and like so many literary amateur detectives before her she enlists the help of friends and proves to be smarter than the local police.
Manda Scott’s use of a lesbian protagonist was a brave move back in the mid nineties. At that time it was very difficult to get a lesbian literary lead character to be taken seriously by the mainstream public, media and major publishing houses.
The Scottish writer and internationally renowned crime writer Val McDermid’s first books based around a lesbian detective, Lindsay Gordon, proved a difficult sell. She soon realized that if she wanted to make a living as a writer she would have to change her protagonist’s sexual orientation to straight.
In 2010 in the Independent newspaper, Val McDermid commented on the situation;

“My first three novels, featuring the UK’s first openly lesbian detective, Lindsay Gordon, were published 20 years ago by the Women’s Press, a small feminist publishing house whose output went largely unreviewed by the mainstream press and was ignored by chain booksellers.
Back then, the notion that a commercial house would publish a novel that featured a lesbian protagonist was laughable. I knew that I’d never make a living as a writer if I stuck to writing about Lindsay. Luckily for me, my ambitions to spread my wings and push myself as a writer meant I embraced alternative possibilities.”
So, it is with sadness that I have to write that the book is a slightly disappointing read. In 1976, Booker Prize judge Philip Larkin was asked for his thoughts on the books that had been short-listed. Larkin remarked, ‘The books had a beginning, a muddle and an end’.
                This description best sums up my thoughts of ‘Hen’s Teeth’. Many of the characters within the book are wonderfully drawn, in particular Kellen Stewart and Lee Adams but other characters are sketchily drawn; Elspeth Phillips and Janine to name but two.
                This is disappointing especially when it comes to Elspeth’s character as she is a police officer and a lesbian but no mention is made of how she combines these two elements in her life. We never find out if fellow officers are aware of her sexual orientation and if they are what problems, if any, this causes. This would have made an interesting sub-plot.
                Janine was Kellen’s partner for nearly four years. She was one of the reasons why Kellen decided to take a lengthy sabbatical in order to decide if the relationship was what she wanted. But, we don’t learn a lot about Janine and this I believe is a glaring omission for a character who shared the main protagonist’s life. Janine leaves Kellen a few days after her return but leaves the proverbial door open for Kellen to let Jan know what she wants from their relationship.
                Apart from the above-mentioned there are several more glaring reasons for describing parts of the book as a ‘muddle. Here are a few: firstly is Bridget’s dog. The dog, Tan, is killed but some chapters later it is alive and well and lying next to the Aga range and then a few chapters further on it is dead again.
                Next we have the ridiculous scenario where Lee and Kellen decide to break into Malcolm Donnelly’s workplace to retrieve information. They both dress in black with accompanying balaclavas. Both abseil from an adjacent building, over a high security fence and into the grounds of the medical building. It is never satisfactorily described as to how they achieved this feat. Lee manages to pick lock two secured doors but how this is done and what method is used is never mentioned. Then pushing incredulity to its apex two large guard dogs that patrol the ground that encompasses the building are subdued rather fortuitously as Kellen not only knows the dog’s owner but knows the safe word that will make the dogs act like puppies.
                In the books of Ian Rankin or Irvine Welsh to name but two, the city of Edinburgh is written in such a way as make the Athens of the North a distinct character in its own right. Manda Scott’s novel is based in and around the City of Glasgow. However, though various locations are mentioned in the book the City of Glasgow is basically ignored and personally I think that was a missed opportunity.
                As a whole the book is very well written with a mixture of pathos, drama and a dollop of humour. The conclusion and the crime’s dénouement are beautifully written and well paced and results in a very satisfactory ending to the novel.

                Manda Scott proves herself adept at writing within the difficult genre of crime writing. Hen’s Teeth was I believe Manda Scott’s first novel and also the first to feature Kellen Stewart who appears in two other novels, Night Mares and Stronger than Death. As a first novel it has to be congratulated as a standout but flawed novel in the saturated market that is crime thrillers.

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