"Murder in the Merchant City" by Angus McAllister is the kind of book that starts by raising the hairs on the back of your neck and leaves them raised long after you have turned the last page. This is a gritty read in many ways, but like its predecessor "Close Quarters" it has an easy narrative that sets the action in familiar places and among seemingly familiar people.
The book starts with a murder and the reader is left in no doubt that it was premeditated. It then moves into the Merchant City Health Centre, which is central to the story that is about to unfold. Its at this point that the main characters are introduced. Angela Somerville is a young single mother who lives a respectable life, except that she earns her living in a Glasgow sauna, not a private medical clinic, as she would have her friends and family believe. She exudes the image of the "girl next door": her co-workers less so. There’s Miranda, stunning, popular and number one favourite with the clients. Candy takes second spot, though she tends to try and work it so that she isn't on the same shift as Miranda. Then there’s Claudia who can best be described as "hard as nails" and finally there's the rather timid Justine.
When the murders continue and the unexplained deaths pile up, Annette suddenly realises that all the victims have been regular customers at the sauna, but no one else seems interested. The boss, in particular, is adamant that if Annette speaks of the connection, she will lose her job. And whilst a fear among punters sees visitor numbers temporarily fall, they soon pick up again and its business as usual for the girls. Annette, however, fears for her new boyfriend Jack, whom she first met when he became a client. Might he become a victim if she doesn't speak out? When the action shifts from inside the sauna to the wider environment of Glasgow's West End, to include the pubs of Byres Road where Jack and his friends both work and socialise, the dialogue shifts seamlessly between the characters and the settings as we learn more about them. Meantime, the murderer is given cameo appearances that add to the building of tension but do nothing to reveal his identity. How long can he continue before he makes a mistake? Can he be caught before he strikes again?
"Murder in the Merchant City" is a fascinating book. The reader is given an insight into a clandestine world, about which few will have knowledge, but most will have an opinion. The detail crammed into the writing is very visual. There's a real sense of being in amongst the action and experiencing the atmosphere that's created by it. In many ways it's an eye-opener and a lesson in not judging something you don't fully understand. Is it a love story wrapped around an unlikely subject? There is certainly some of that in there. Is it a battle between good and evil? There are times when it would seem so. Can murder ever be justified if the motive is based on deeply held personal beliefs? The reader is certainly challenged to question that. If you like a book that you can't put down because it draws you in, you won't be disappointed by "Murder in the Merchant City"!