Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Review: THE CUT

THE CUT by Chris Brookmyre (Little, Brown, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Millie Spark can kill anyone.

A special effects make-up artist, her talent is to create realistic scenes of bloody violence.

Then, one day, she wakes to find her lover dead in her bed.

Twenty-five years later, her sentence for murder served, Millicent is ready to give up on her broken life - until she meets troubled film student and reluctant petty thief Jerry.

Together, they begin to discover that all was not what it seemed on that fateful night . . . and someone doesn't want them to find out why.

Since Chris Brookmyre jolted crime readers with his first Jack Parlabane tale back in the mid-1990s, the Scottish storyteller has delivered plenty of fresh takes and distinctiveness. Whether it was his quirky early tales that were a sweary Scots take on comic crime to the darker places some of his later books treaded, whether it's mysteries in Victorian Edinburgh co-written with Marisa Haetzman under the name Ambrose Parry or twisted space station whodunnits, Brookmyre always entertains. 

So I was very curious about his new standalone, THE CUT. 

Unsurprisingly, I came away impressed and delighted, after an engrossing few hours reading. 

Brookmyre seasons the stew and delivers plenty of fresh flavour with an unusual tag-team of sleuths trying to work out what happened in the past while surviving the present (I guess making this a thriller with a murder mystery component too), and an intriguing dive into horror movie fandom and some behind-the-scenes wizardry and machinations of the European film world. Having said see ya to her sixties a couple of years back, Millicent Spark is shuffling through life and prepping to bring her own curtain down a little early. A quarter century ago Millicent was Millie, a renowned makeup artist on the horror movie scene. She created magic onset, impressing everyone with gruesome deaths. 

Until she lived through the horrors of a gruesome death herself. One morning Millie woke up to a blood-soaked scene to rival those she created on film. Her lover dead, she went to prison. 

'The Video Nasty Killer' screamed the tabloids, stoking public outrage about horror films and their influence. Proclaiming her innocence for years, Millie-now-Millicent served a very long sentence, and doesn't know how to live in the modern world now she's finally out. A shell of her former self, fearful and anxious, yet sharp even brutal with her tongue. Out of place and off-kilter. 

Meanwhile Jerry is a film-loving fresher at a Glasgow University who's said goodbye to his days as a petty thief and burglar after the deaths of two elderly people forced a crisis of conscience. Somewhat. And not if his dangerous past associate has his say. Struggling with life in the halls, Jerry answers an ad to live with three old ladies, including the sharp-tongued Millicent. Two people split by more than five decades, but both harbouring secrets and guilt and feeling like they can't find their footing. 

When Millicent is jolted by an old photo, the duo try to uncover a truth from long ago, kickstarting an unlikely adventure across Europe where film fan Jerry get an up-close experience with movie history, but may not live to write about it. THE CUT is a true delight, a fast-paced thriller with strong characterisation and a good sense of its world, that takes readers behind-the-scenes of an industry that can seem glamorous from afar but is full of grime (and far worse). Brookmyre also raises some interesting issues about depictions of violence onscreen and how that is seen, or used as a political football or scapegoat by politicians and others looking to distract from larger issues or embarrassments. 

Well-drawn characters (beyond our Spring and Autumn heroes) create further tension and laughs - the cast is deep and good. Overall, THE CUT is a very good read from a very good storyteller. Thoroughly enjoyable, a thrill ride that also makes you think. Superb. 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

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