By Adam Selby-Martin
I do have a soft spot for a good, immersive crime thriller, and there have certainly been a number of them set in alternate realities, demonstrating an impressive level of pedigree throughout the past few decades.
There’s the classic SS-GB from Len Deighton, recently turned into a BBC series, and Michael Chabon’s Hugo Award-Winning The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, not to mention the very recent Ashes of America by Fergus McNeill, which I reviewed for this blog earlier this year. I’ve read and enjoyed all of them, and always happy to try out another, so I was delighted to discover Malcolm Mackay’s curiously-titled In The Cage Where Your Saviours Hide as I dived yet again into the Kindle listings for the Alternate History genre.
Those previous crime thrillers I mentioned above had been set in Britain and America, but Mr Mackay has set his title in an independent Scotland, one which never entered into the Acts of Union with England in 1707 and therefore remained apart from the rest of the United Kingdom. This was doubly fascinating for me – not only had I never seen a crime thriller set in an independent Kingdom of Scotland, I had never seen any kind of Alternate History title set in such a nation.
That certainly piqued my interest, as did the engaging back-cover blurb and the wonderful piece of cover art commissioned by the publisher, which features colourful Saltires against a monochrome background and faded, patchy block text for the novel’s title. Plus it was only 99p on the Kindle at time of purchase, so it felt like I had nothing to lose and everything to gain; for a reviewer on a very limited budget and reliant mostly on Kindle Unlimited, discounted titles are a boon.
Mackay has a breezy, engaging writing style that drew me in from the first paragraph, and made In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide a really easy and enjoyable read that I got through in a matter of hours. The book has a slightly unusual writing style and narrative structure, which can take a little getting used to, but actually helps propel the plot along. In some ways it’s almost an amalgam, combining a standard third-person narrative with occasional asides by an omniscient, potentially unreliable narrator with a wry sense of humour who likes to provide dark, often sarcastic asides about the city of Challaid, its inhabitants and its history.
It isn’t the easiest to describe but, again, Mackay easily pulls it off, aided by interleaving the narrative chapters with excerpts from historical documents – newspaper articles, interviews, police reports etc. – that give you more background about the Kingdom of Scotland and how it developed in this reality.
Mackay also does a great job of drawing out the atmosphere of Challaid and the surrounding areas, infusing the novel with it and really making the city come alive. In many ways, the city itself is the focus of the novel – a semi-isolated, deeply corrupt city owned by bankers and infested with criminal gangs, and a police force so shady that that the anti-corruption force is the most corrupt of all. But it’s also a city of immigration, with deep links to the Scottish colonies of Caledonia deep in South America, and also one that has a bone-deep creed of anti-fascism after its experiences in the Second World War. Challaid is a complex, multi-facted and fascinating character, and by far the best thing about In The Cage Where Your Saviours Hide.
Turning to the plot itself, the opening pages of the novel grab your attention and set the overall mood for the story- a rain-lashed, run-down city where crime - and murder - is so commonplace that one more corpse, laid flat in a dead-end alley, isn't worth noticing.
Our protagonist is Darian Ross, a young Private Investigator who's drawn into the murky world of politics and corruption in Challaid to investigate who turned a man into the corpse that lay stretched out in that alley. Ross an interesting protagonist, not afraid to get rough and fight dirty to get a result as early chapters show, But he’s also weighed down by his family history and his father's prison time for murder, and the fact that his father’s time as a police officer in Challaid has inevitably prevented him from taking up a career in the police. Instead he works as a Private Investigator (of sorts) for a former police officer who retired for an easier life, with whom Ross has a complex relationship. In many ways the plot is a blend of genre tropes and stereotypes – the young and eager PI with a background he's trying to avoid, trying to do good, opposed by corrupt and cynical police and villains entrenched in the city power structure. But it’s done incredibly well, demonstrating Mackay’s experience in the crime thriller genre, and the plot sweeps you along enjoyably enough, aided by memorable characters and that breezy writing and dubious narrator.
Previous reviews of In The Cage Where Your Saviours Hide have complained that the alternate history elements of the novel don’t actually seem to intersect with the plot, and a cursory reading of the novel might bring agreement with that point. But as I finished the novel, I came to realise that Mackay is a lot more subtle with his plotting and world-building than many authors in the Alternate History genre. This isn’t a novel where the reader is hit over the head with the altered reality – there’s no hot pursuit to Caledonia in search of The Truth or The Villains, nor some earth-shattering denouement as in SS-GB where the world is about to change significantly as a result of the plot concluding. Instead what we get is a far more understated and restrained conclusion, where the murder is integral to the heart of Challaid, Caledonia and even the success of independent Scotland, and reveals some of the sordid truths to be found in those places.
But Mackay successfully shows that not all Alternate History titles have to end in world-changing events that upend the fabric of society or topple dictatorships. Sometimes it’s enough just to be shown the truth behind the curtain, even if just for a moment; even if nothing really changed; or even could be changed.
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Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews