What You Pay For

Written by Claire Askew

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.

What You Pay For
Hodder and Stoughton
RRP: £16.99
Released: August 22 2019

Suspense is racked high from the first sentence with DI Birch and DC Amy Kato sitting in a car on a breakwater in the middle of the night waiting for the command that will signal the start of a major sting operation. A flotilla of fishing boats is coming in to port with a cargo of drugs.

Despite hiccups everything wobbles to a successful conclusion with all the villains, from delivery drivers to Solomon, the godfather, behind bars - and all down to one informant whose life now is worth no more than the cost of a local phone call. The basic problem being that none of the criminals is talking; everyone, particularly Solomon and his expensive lawyers, knowing that he can be held only 72 hours unless charged. The informant’s testimony is essential and he has gone to ground, his identity apparently unknown.

The reader knows that soon enough however, although his unmasking seems something of a coincidence, the link between him and DI Birch even outrageous as a literary ploy. Birch joined the police fourteen years ago in the hope that she might find her young brother who had disappeared without trace. That is until he turns up in her kitchen in the small hours of the night: Charlie, long lost but alive, now a hardened criminal, a valuable but vulnerable informant who has spent much of his adult life managing a brothel housing trafficked woman.

The rest of this long book consists of alternate chapters in which Birch and her brother squabble interminably against the counterpoint of his appalling but ultimately boring back story. Relief comes with brief forays to Birch’s station and her encounters with a visiting cop: a rough diamond from Glasgow who comes over clever in the face of Birch’s undoubted naïveté and even stupidity (how, one asks, did she ever make detective inspector?).

Suspense is achieved by the urgency to persuade Charlie to go to the police and agree to testify, so securing the conviction of a notorious villain and his gang. But Charlie is demanding a deal, if not immunity, the stumbling block being that he is a killer himself. Ironically, until he has police protection, he is at the mercy of any hitman who can find him. Birch has too much on her plate: to safeguard her brother yet destroy Solomon and his minions while securing her own career; the reader tires of her problems and, resigned, anticipates a violent climax which is surely the only kind of resolution possible.

The author has tried hard to portray the soft and dirty underbelly of today’s Edinburgh: the gutter language, the gangster lifestyle juxtaposed with police-procedural and Birch’s shambolic domesticity. Despite all this and that anticipated climax the general effect is claustrophobic and scurrilous, and reads as if a new woman were trying to write like a man.

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