Review: Singing to the Dead by Caro Ramsay

I read and really enjoyed Caro Ramsay’s first book Absolution in my pre-blog days and was very keen to read her second book, featuring some of the same characters. SPOILER ALERT: In this review I am by necessity going to talk about an event that took place at the end of the first book so if you haven’t read that one and want to without knowing what happens at the end please avert your eyes.

As Singing to the Dead opens readers are introduced rapidly to several story arcs. In the first of the two main threads two small boys have gone missing in Glasgow but it’s hard to know if they might have been kidnapped or are runaways due to their fairly grim home lives. There’s also an elderly man who has been killed in a house fire but Police soon learn that there might be something more sinister at play as it seems he may have been poisoned. The Police at Partickhill station are still recovering from the loss of their old DCI,  Alan McAlpine, and are having to deal with a new boss who they find it hard to like.

Ramsay’s strength lies in her ability to create very credible characters, in particular because she doesn’t shy away from depicting unlikable people who still manage to do good things. This is rarer than it ought to be in fiction. Not that all the characters are unlikable of course though, as in life, some of them are but, again as in life, pure evil is rare. These kind of complex characters are far more interesting than easily identifiable heroes and villains. Between a whole police squad and all the players needed to keep several story arcs running there are quite a lot of characters but I never found myself overwhelmed. In fact I enjoyed the literary version of an ensemble cast in which no one character really played a lead role. On top of maintaining interest it made it harder to predict what would happen and who would turn out to be the bad guy(s).

Ramsay also juggles her many threads well and it would be a fussy reader indeed who couldn’t find enough content to keep one’s mind whirring with all that’s going on in this book. That said, I found the middle of the book a bit ‘woolly’ and think it could have done with tighter editing. There was some duplication and labouring of points, particularly in the thread concerning Eve and her sister Lynne, which slowed down the action and made the book longer than it needed to be (another 500+ page tome). However, the stories are wrapped up masterfully and even if you predict the outcome of one thread I suspect you’ll struggle to work them all out.

This is quite a different book to Absolution. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of its predecessor but on the flip side it’s far more complex and suspenseful. Overall I found it an excellent follow-up book, not least because it didn’t stick to exactly the same formula as the first which shows the author isn’t afraid to take some risks and I have to applaud that.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 4/5

Publisher: Penguin; ISBN: 978-0-014-102925-2; Length: 510 pages; Setting: Glasgow, Scotland, present day

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Singing to the Dead has been reviewed by Donna’s dad at Big Beat from the Badsville, Karen at Aust Crime Fiction and Pat at Euro Crime

However good her writing is this author still gets my award for ‘author who least understand the point of the internet in 2010’. My unsolicited advice to Ramsay or anyone trying to present a ‘public face’ online is that if you can’t update your website in more than 3 years (it still shows Absolution as her only published novel although it does have a link to what was presumably an early title for Singing to the Dead) and you’re not going to post to your blog then don’t have them. Better still, learn.

And while I’m in rant mode may I please have permission pour paint on the next person who writes that Ramsay is a ‘female Ian Rankin’? Not only is it a completely nonsensical thing to say [we get it, he’s Scottish, she’s Scottish but that’s just about where the similarity ends] but nonsense does not become intelligent just because it is repeated endlessly.

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5 Responses to Review: Singing to the Dead by Caro Ramsay

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this excellent review. I really do want to read Ramsay’s work, and I’m not pleased with myself that I haven’t read Absolution yet *sigh*. I’ve been wanting to since your excellent review of it in October. It’s on the TBR list… I like your point, by the way, very much, that comparisons between authors should not be made unless there are solid reasons (other than their nationalities) to do so.


  2. Maxine says:

    Nice review, Bernadette, and I agree with your “rants” as you call them (seem perfectly reasonable to me). I have read several books by a range of Scottish authors who are referred to as “the next Ian Rankin) (if male) or “the female Ian Rankin” (if female).
    As you know I did not enjoy Absolution all that much – a bit of a curate’s egg I thought, and it was quite long, from memory. However, in view of your recommendation of Singing to the Dead, I will definitely put it on my list.


  3. Dorte H says:

    The next Ian Rankin is just as pointless as the next Stieg Larsson. Really good authors are excellent because they are NOT run-of-the-mill


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