What does a crime writer do when his or her protagonist, carefully nurtured and developed over decades and over the course of perhaps dozens of books, reaches the natural conclusion of their career progression? It's a problem that's been wrestled with by more than one author of Tartan Noir in recent years. In the case of Quintin Jardine and his series of Bob Skinner novels, it's a problem he's been working his way though over several books. Bob Skinner spent over twenty books becoming ever more senior and ever more powerful as a policeman, to the point where both he and his creator had to come to terms with the fact that chief constables are not meant to run around solving crimes. Which was a problem for both of them, because running around and solving crimes is what Bob Skinner excels at doing. Meanwhile, in the real world, the readers of Tartan Noir are considerably more interested in protagonists who run around and solve crimes than they are in the bureaucratic travails of a senior administrator in a policeman's uniform.
Quintin Jardine has done an excellent job of allowing Bob Skinner to play to his strengths despite the constraints placed on him in recent novels, and when we reviewed the 25th book in the series, "Last Resort", we said that it could easily have been subtitled "What Bob Did Next". We concluded that "Bob has a much clearer idea of what he wants to do with his future, and from a reader's perspective it is great to see how the opportunities for storytelling have significantly expanded as a result."
"Private Investigations" is the 26th book in the series, and the first set in Scotland since Bob declined to apply for the job of chief constable of Scotland's newly-unified police service, a job that would have been his for the taking. From a reader's perspective, the question is a simple one. Having carved out some room for manoeuvre for himself and his creation, how does Quintin Jardine tackle the first novel featuring Bob Skinner as a truly independent agent in Scotland?
It's very pleasing to be able to report that "Private Investigations" is an outstanding book, in our view the best Skinner yet. The storylines are complex (but readily comprehensible) and compelling, and the reader is pushed along breathlessly from beginning to end. It is written partly as a first person narrative by Bob Skinner, with his story interwoven with sections of third person narrative featuring the other main characters. We start with Bob making an appalling discovery following a minor traffic accident in Edinburgh. While his ex-colleagues are investigating that, he is asked to take on a highly lucrative private commission of his own. The many twist and turns are nicely unsignposted and the story builds to a very satisfying and beautifully crafted conclusion that has the added bonus of being unpredictable until you are pretty much on top of it.
Quintin Jardine may have freed Bob Skinner from the shackles of his office and the silver braid of his uniform, but when you read "Private Investigations" it becomes clear that the true liberation has been of the author himself, who you get to feel may not have entirely liked what Bob Skinner had become. The result of their joint liberation is an excellent piece of storytelling and a thoroughly enjoyable novel.