Just when you'd thought that just about every possible variant of Tartan Noir had been explored, along comes something totally different. "The Health of Strangers" by Lesley Kelly certainly draws on elements we are used to, like a cop with a messed up private life and an Edinburgh setting. But the author adds into the mix one element that changes everything. The Virus, a mutant strain of influenza, has become a modern-day Black Death, cutting a swathe through the population and leaving in its wake a society in which people are divided into the lucky immune, and the not so lucky non-immune.
In this dreadful new world, monthly health checks are compulsory for those who are vulnerable, and teams have been set up to track down people who do not attend. The North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team is a motley group of seconded police officers and health professionals. It's bordering on dysfunctional, but is still by far the best of Edinburgh's four health enforcement teams. So when the daughter of a German politician, studying in the city, does not turn up for her health check and cannot be found, they are called in to look for her. It soon becomes clear that there are links to another girl they are looking for, to a series of drug overdoses, and to a mysterious cult, the Children of Camus, who appear to believe they have a better solution to the problem of the Virus.
The characters are beautifully drawn. The main protagonist is Mona, who had thought that a move into a health enforcement team would be a good way of enhancing her CV as a police officer, and only later found out she'd been moved to get her out of the way. She is partnered with Bernard, who had wanted to be a top-flight badminton player, and only belatedly moved into health administration. Bernard is a bag of insecurities and doubts, and the last person you'd choose to be part of an investigative team. Well, perhaps not quite the last person: that would be Maitland, another seconded policeman who glories in his political incorrectness and who enjoys nothing better than mocking and belittling his colleagues. How this bunch are meant to work together to find the missing girls is anyone's guess, and the portrayal of a team in chaos, within a society in crisis, is a compelling one. Yet despite themselves they begin to make progress, only to find themselves racing to find the girl before someone else does.
"The Health of Strangers" moves along at a cracking pace and the unsettling sense you get of an all-too-believable Edinburgh of the near future, or perhaps an alternative Edinburgh of today, helps draw you into what, at its heart, is a really well constructed and extremely entertaining thriller.