"Songs by Dead Girls" by Lesley Kelly is the author's third novel and the second in her "Health of Strangers" series. For those who haven't read its predecessor, the author has taken some familiar elements of Tartan Noir, like a cop with a messed up private life and a Scottish city setting, in this case Edinburgh, but she 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, and teams have been set up to track down people who do not attend. The North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team (HET) is one of them, a bunch of dysfunctional misfits with police or health service backgrounds. Their task is an unenviable one. Disliked by just about everyone and under scrutiny from the media and from politicians, they are under-resourced, under-loved and poorly-led. Then the Virus claims the life of one of Edinburgh's main drug dealers and a battle to fill the vacuum breaks out between rival gangs from Edinburgh and Glasgow. This makes the work of the North Edinburgh HET even more dangerous, especially when they are trying to find a girl involved in drugs. As if that were not enough, Scotland's leading virologist, Professor Bicham-Fowler, has gone missing. He is a man whose views are widely respected and he's a key player in determining the Government's response to the Virus. If he stays off the radar long enough to miss his own Health Check, and that becomes widely known, then it risks undermining the credibility of the entire system.
For most of its course, this book pursues two main strands. Health worker Bernard and arrogant ex-policeman Maitland are left to fend off inquisitive politicians in Edinburgh and find the girl who's missed her Health Check. Meanwhile, Mona, the central character (and another ex-cop), and her boss Paterson are sent quietly and unofficially to London to try to track down the missing professor, where he is believed to be looking for a long-lost daughter. Both strands throw up some highly satisfying twists and turns as it becomes clear that the two parts of the HET are each getting into increasingly dangerous waters. The book builds nicely towards its conclusion. When this arrives it is with the sense that, while one of the strands has been resolved in a very satisfying way, the second needed far more space than was available, perhaps even another book, and this has left things rather in the air. Nonetheless, "Songs by Dead Girls" is a nicely constructed and very entertaining thriller, and comes complete with some beautifully-drawn and very memorable characters.