Source: Review copy
Publication: 14th March 2019 from Contraband
When Aberdeen housewife Debbie Milne abruptly vanishes, her husband is frantic with worry and turns to local PIs Maggie Laird and Big Wilma Harcus.
Maggie is reluctant to take on a misper case, but Wilma cajoles her into a covert operation trawling women s refuges and homeless squats in search of a lead. But when a woman’s body is discovered in a skip, the unlikely investigators are dragged into a deeper mystery involving people-trafficking, gambling and prostitution and they’re in deadly danger.
With the police struggling to make headway and the clock ticking, the race is on for Harcus & Laird to find answers, further straining their already fraying relationship.
With Runaway, Claire MacLeary delivers the goods again creating a surprising, gritty, fast-paced tale with the warmth and wit of women of a certain age.
I’m a big fan of MacLeary’s Harcus and Laird series, of which Runaway is the 3rd. It’s not just that they are women ‘of a certain age’, though that helps. It’s not even that I identify in more ways than one with Big Wilma; mostly it is that this is as true a portrait of the relationship between two quite different women as you are likely to get.
Next door neighbours, working together through force of circumstance rather than positive desire, each is a wee bit wary of the other, but each also secretly wishes they were a wee bit more like the other, though neither would ever admit it.
Maggie is struggling. She is holding down two part time jobs as well as being a partner in the PI Agency and look after her children. She doesn’t feel as if she’s on top of anything and she’s thinking it’s time to call it quits with the agency.
Wilma disagrees. The agency has made her feel she’s doing something worthwhile, as well as earning money and she won’t give it up without a fight. So when Scott Milne asks them to find his missing wife, Wilma grabs the job with both hands and convinces Maggie to give the agency another chance.
What makes these books really come alive is the backchat between these two different women. Wilma has a fast mouth and ready wit; Maggie may be slower to rise, but her tongue can be caustic, though truth be told these women are genuinely fond of each other, it’s just not always easy to tell.
So Maggie and Wilma set out to trace Debbie Milne. There’s no obvious reason for her disappearance and her husband, Scott seems genuinely distressed that she has gone.
The Police don’t seem terribly interested either, until things begin to take a much darker turn and the case is escalated to CID. Now the protocol here is that at this point, the two women should back off, especially since they got into trouble in the last case for ailing to do exactly that, but Wilma is determined that the agency will solve this case – she needs that feather in their cap to convince Maggie to keep going.
Maggie’s loyalties are split. Her husband, now deceased, was accused of something he did not do and she really needs to see his name cleared. The new DI Allan Chisolm, can help her do that, but though he is appreciative of Maggie’s qualities, he expects her agency to play things by the book. And then there’s DS Brian Burnett; he also has a soft spot for Maggie, which makes getting information a wee bit easier than it might be, though Maggie doesn’t really want to encourage him too much.
There’s not a lot of glamour as Wilma and Maggie painstakingly trawl through the betting shops, refuges and homeless shelters of Aberdeen, but there’s something about their dogged determination and resilience that really fires up this investigation and makes it come alive. The descriptions of people and places are extremely well done; MacLeary is an author who knows that research makes for a credible sense of place and Aberdeen springs to life in her vivid settings adding yet another layer of authenticity to her writing.
Whether it’s Wilma heaving up her bosom to get a sleazy contact to talk or Maggie finding her way straight into trouble, these two keep the reader invested in the outcome of the missing persons investigation and their humour and repartee make sure we are rooting for them to succeed.
Verdict: Authentic, gritty, dark and dealing with difficult themes, the Harcus and Laird series goes from strength to strength. This is MacLeary’s best book yet.
Claire MacLeary lived for many years in Aberdeen and St Andrews, but describes herself as “a feisty Glaswegian with a full life to draw on”. Following a career in business, she gained an MLitt with Distinction from the University of Dundee and her short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies. She has appeared at Granite Noir, Noir at the Bar and other literary events. Claire’s debut novel, Cross Purpose, was longlisted for the prestigious McIlvanney Prize, Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award 2017.