I should say up front that I’ve known Chris for a number of years and have admired her work for the same length of time. I don’t always review books by people I know personally – quite the opposite – but I’m not keen on reviewing books I don’t like – which is one of the reasons why the ethos of the IEBR site appeals to me so much: reflective reviews of books we have genuinely enjoyed, whether we know the writers or not.
I first became aware of Chris as a fellow writer when she won a prize for which I myself had been shortlisted a couple of years earlier: the Dundee Book Prize. Chris won the major prize with a dark and disturbing piece of crime fiction called Dead Wood.
One would have anticipated that the prize and subsequent publication of Dead Wood might lead to a long term relationship with a publisher – but inexplicable delays followed. Unsurpisingly, when eBook publishing became a viable option, Chris led the way, a self confessed ‘techno-geek who builds computers in her spare time’, very comfortable with the digital world and happy to help her colleagues. It never fails to amuse me that it tends to be middle aged and older writers who have turned out to be ‘early adopters’ while so many younger writers run a little scared of the changes that are upon us.
Chris, as an ex social worker, knows of what she writes, not just when it comes to her darker themes of murder, obsession and criminal behaviour, but also when she examines human relationships in all their fascinating manifestations. The title story in this collection is a claustrophobic, uncomfortable and terrifying evocation of a stalker and what is going on in his mind. ‘It was his kingdom, the park. And the bandstand was his throne room. No-one knew about the space underneath that he had made his private territory.’ This, according to the author’s introduction, gave birth to Chris’s next novel Night Watcher, also available as an eBook, a riveting but equally uncomfortable read. In Zofia’s Footsteps is another dark tale with a nasty and quite possibly supernatural twist, set among a group of migrant fruit pickers in contemporary Scotland: ‘The sun beat down making the poly tunnels feel like hothouses and stifling her with the smell of strawberries.’ Not a Bad Person, about the destructive effects of heroin addiction, has a terrible denouement, beautifully written but heart-in-mouth horrifying. These are not just tales about the dark side of humanity, but well crafted short stories. Chris knows her genre well and handles it with expertise – never too much information, always just enough.
Of the remaining three stories in this collection, I enjoyed Ghost of Christmas Past best, perhaps because it alleviated the horror of the first three: it’s a gentle but again slightly spooky tale about old age, loneliness and loss.
eBooks have seen the resurrection of the short story. Over the last decade it had become ever harder to place anything except perhaps the literary and experimental. With a few notable exceptions, the magazines which once published popular short stories have elected to jettison them. I’m not sure why this happened, or what ‘focus group’ suggested it would be a good thing. But the demise of the short story (much like the demise of the mid-list in longer fiction) was somehow blamed on readers and writers, rather than the publishers who had decided not to provide outlets. But stories are perfect for a commute or a bed-time read – as Kindle and Nook owners have discovered – and this little collection is no exception. (Although I wouldn’t recommend these as bed time reading if you live alone!) Obsession will also give you a taster of what to expect in Night Watcher, which is a fine piece of work. I await Chris’s next novel with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension, which I’m sure she’d appreciate – although it still amazes me that such a lovely, cheerful person can weave such thoroughly disturbing tales. I enjoyed Dead Wood very much, but I felt that with Night Watcher, Chris had really hit her stride. It’ll be fascinating to see what comes next.
Obsession is available in Kindle format
Find out more about Chris Longmuir