I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for Russel D. McLean. Recruited during last fall’s Bouchercon in San Francisco to moderate a panel discussion on the legacy of detective novelist Robert B. Parker, who’d died earlier in the year, he had a devil of a time keeping things in line. A couple of his panelists quickly took over the show, debating each other rather than waiting for the moderator’s prompts and, try as he might, Scottish author McLean found the situation mostly beyond his control.

Read the first Rap Sheet column for Kirkus.

That presentation came to mind as I read McLean’s new second novel, The Lost Sister. In it we find another guy losing command of events—only with disastrous, rather than merely discomforting, results.

Protagonist J. McNee, introduced in McLean’s The Good Son (2009), is a former “golden boy” cop, now scraping by as a moody, socially awkward private eye in Dundee, Scotland, a densely populated town with a “folk-reputation for violence, thuggery, idiocy and poverty.” He insists that he wants to rebuild his life after a car accident killed his girlfriend and left him traumatized. But neither clients nor circumstances seem willing to cooperate with McNee’s recovery scheme. He even turns a deaf ear to his own intuition.

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Indeed, he should’ve known better than to chase after Mary Furst, an intelligent 14-year-old gone missing from her supposedly safe neighborhood. The case reeks at its very outset. It’s brought McNee’s way by a journalist friend, who, thinking it peculiar that the local constabulary should wish to hush up the girl’s disappearance, wants to know whether Mary was actually kidnapped. McNee takes no time to discern that something’s terribly amiss. For one thing, the girl’s godfather is “businessman” David Burns, hailed in the press for helping to rejuvenate Dundee’s decrepit districts, but more familiar to McNee as a “scumbag…knuckle deep in drug money, extortion rackets, underground deals, blackmail.”

Further complicating matters is the arrival of a second gumshoe, Wickes, a loose cannon up from Glasgow. Wickes is anxious to share information with McNee about Deborah Brown—his onetime girlfriend and also, he reveals, Mary Furst’s birth mother. He explains that Deborah had agreed to relinquish custody of Mary after she was born, but her apprehension around that decision grew as her pregnancy progressed. “She’s not a bad person,” Wickes says of Deborah, before disclosing that she’d long suffered from depression, had sought to renege on the adoption arrangement at the 11th hour and later snatched the baby briefly from the Fursts. Wickes thinks that Deborah might be behind Mary Furst’s latest vanishing as well and offers his assistance in running them both to ground.

As he stumbles through this investigation, motivated less by good sense than by a desire to “crucify” Burns for prior transgressions and find out for himself what really happened to Mary Furst, McNee slowly realizes that everything he thought he knew about the case’s past and players might be wrong. Whether his inability to manage plot turns will result in further disaster is the question driving this book’s close.

Well-experienced in the economy of short-story writing, McLean brings to his P.I. series a vigorous, clipped style that fits agreeably with the bleak, desperate stories he endeavors to tell. He mines the beleaguered sleuth theme for all it’s worth, plus a modicum more. McNee—nicknamed “Steed” after the Patrick Macnee character in The Avengers—has committed himself to loneliness, shying from a relationship with the only person (a female detective constable) who really seems to care about him. And if he acted any more like a little man, helpless against the forces of destiny, he’d have to wear elevator shoes just to be spotted in a crowd. But where McLean finds the power of his tales, and where his protagonist finds himself most mired, is in grief. Like The Good Son, The Lost Sister is all about grieving—for a dead girlfriend, a lost child, a loss of confidence in the future—and how sorrow has the potential to cause as much damage as violence.

The Lost Sister can be faulted for its overextended scenes devoted to background information, its frequent typographical errors and a downbeat air that makes the reader double-check whether McLean isn’t Scandinavian, rather than Scottish. However, it excels in establishing J. McNee as a character worth following, someone motivated by a desire to make up for previous failures, a P.I. capable of establishing distinction from so many of his wisecracking, philosophizing brethren.

That’s one area in which McLean demonstrates firm control.

J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of the award-winning crime-fiction blog The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.


Pub info:

The Lost Sister

Russel D. McLean

Thomas Dunne/Minotaur / March 15 / 9780312576820 / $24.99