In Louise Millar’s thriller, City of Strangers, newlywed Grace Scott returns from a two week honeymoon in Thailand to her new flat in Edinburgh only to find a dead man in her kitchen. The man’s shoes are poorly fitting, he has no socks, and later, according to the autopsy, it’s revealed that the man, who had no ID was starving. The police chalk up the body to a burglar who died accidentally in the process of a break-in, but Grace has a vague dissatisfaction with the verdict which becomes amplified when she finds a scribbled note amongst her wedding presents.
With the signed note as a clue, and propelled by the uncomfortable knowledge that her own father died alone, Grace decides to pursue the man’s identity and find his family. What begins as a fairly simple connect-the-dots mission soon spirals out of control as Grace begins to learn two very different versions of the dead man’s life. She travels to London, Amsterdam and Paris with questions that lead her into the violent underbelly of the criminal world.
There’s a second story strand back in Edinburgh involving Ewan, Louise’s former journalism classmate and his boss, Sula, at Scots Today. Sula is chasing a story which concerns two bodies found in a pit cave: one man was an Australian hiker, and the other was a drug dealer, and Sula asks : “why would an Australian tourist be buried on top of one of Edinburgh’s finest drug dealers?” Of course these two story strands eventually connect.
Ewan and Sula are wonderful characters, and yet they are secondary figures in this tale. Their dynamic and dialogue sizzles and altogether seems much more real than that of Grace and Nicu the hunky prize-winning photographer she meets in Amsterdam. There’s one point when Sula pumps an unwitting PC for information. He’s been guarding a crime scene in the cold, and she wanders up to him with a spare bacon roll. At another time, she borrows a greyhound as a prop to join other dogwalkers. The touches of humour which underscore how far some reporters will go to get a story help balance the darker, sadder aspects of this tale.
City of Strangers begins as a crime story but then morphs into a more complex, fleshy thriller. While I chewed up the story involving Ewan and Sula, my two favourite characters in the book, I had a much harder time with Grace, who dumps Mac, her newlywed husband without a word to pursue the photojournalist career she knows she wants. I found myself mulling over other plot scenarios: would it have been better if Grace’s husband Mac didn’t exist at all (but then he becomes integral to the plot later,) or what if Grace and Mac had already had longstanding marriage problems when the novel begins? I’ll land on the latter as Grace as a newlywed just didn’t work for this reader. She was too happy to sail off and ‘find herself’ which smacked much more of an unhappily woman than a newlywed–even one with a long-standing relationship such as Grace had with Mac. Grace is essentially drawn as a woman in the midst of a personal crisis having to choose career over domesticity, but the newlywed tag doesn’t mesh, and every time she ignores Mac’s texts or drops his calls, her actions push that post-honeymoon credibility.