North West Reads Book 12: Dead Beat by Val McDermid
Renowned Scottish novelist Val McDermid turns to Manchester as the setting for the first in a series of novels featuring Private Investigator Kate Brannigan.
Not all students finish their degrees and Kate Brannigan was one of them. After undertaking some legal work for Private Investigator Bill Mortensen which in turn led to some undercover work, Kate realised that she would make more money working as a PI than as a junior solicitor. She ended her studies at Manchester University, and went into partnership with Bill, forming Mortensen and Brannigan. Kate’s father had not been happy with her decision but accepted it when he realised this was a good move for her; it was certainly one she never regretted.
Bill, who had studied computer science at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), became interested in computer crime and surveillance and so began to offer his expertise to investigate cases of computer fraud and hacking. Kate proved her worth going undercover as a temp or a data processor, the sort of job where one can go unnoticed while all the time carefully observing and recording any illicit activity. Kate had moved onto bigger jobs and was currently undertaking surveillance work on brothers Billy and Gary Smart. They dealt in counterfeit goods, currently high-end ones such as Rolex watches. Usually, these items would be sold in the full knowledge from seller and buyer that they were knock-off, however, much to Mortensen and Brannigan’s current clients concern, Billy and Gary were aiming to sell their goods as the real deal, making a fortune in the process.
Surveillance work meant long tiring days tailing the subjects to and from their bases of operation. One such day trailing after the Smart brothers leaves Kate not fully in the mood to go to a swanky party, thrown for a local music star, with her partner, Richard. Richard has a glamorous job as a music journalist in a city and at a time (the early 1990s) that is on the cusp of being the coolest, hippest place in the world. The music scene in Manchester had been vibrant for many years already thanks to individuals like Tony Wilson and venues such as the Hacienda, but with the ‘Madchester’ scene Richard was very much in the right place at the right time. Kate didn’t always want to go with Richard to these events, as familiarity with the business meant that much of the glamour of the music scene, and the musicians involved in it, had worn off. However, she can’t get out of attending this party as Richard has told her that the star throwing it, Jett (who is also his friend) had specifically asked for her to come.
Richard is convinced that the reason for Jett’s insistence on Kate’s presence has to do with some good news he is expecting to receive at the party. He tells her what he thinks this is on the journey; he is certain that Jett is going to make Richard his ghost writer for his autobiography. However, he discovers at the party, much to his consternation, that he has been passed over for a hack journalist with little knowledge of the music scene. An angry Kate confronts Jett about this, who is apologetic and explains that he was overruled on the choice of writer by his manager, Kevin. Taking Kate to one side and away from all the hangers on and admirers, Jett reveals the real reason why he wanted Kate at the party. He needs her skills as an investigator for a very important, and personal, job.
Jett had grown up in Moss Side with his friend, who became his girlfriend, Moira Pollock. They discovered they both loved music and music making, and with his songs and her lyrics they soon became massively successful, with the assistance of Kevin who had spotted their talent and became their manager. Jett thrived with the fame, adulation and money, but Moira found it difficult to cope. She developed a drug habit and one day simply walked away from it all. Jett wanted Kate to find Moira. He felt guilty for not giving her more time and support when she was struggling. Kate can see he is sincere in his desire to find Moira and make amends, however, Kate wryly notes Jett’s comment that his last two albums were pretty poor compared to the two he made with Moira; this was something that Kate, as a music fan herself, had also noticed. So maybe, she muses to herself, his motives for finding Moira were not entirely altruistic.
Kate is intrigued enough to agree to take the job, putting aside her distaste of Jett’s rather ‘traditional’ views of women’s roles based on his Christian faith and some ‘new age codswallop’. She charges him a much higher rate than normal to undertake this investigation; Bill notes that these types of jobs can be long, difficult and sometimes fruitless, but he’s gives her the go-ahead to take it on. She additionally warns Jett that Moira may not wish to be found or wish to contact him.
Kate’s first port of call is to Jett’s entourage, comfortably ensconced at his plush Georgian mansion in Cheshire, Colcutt Manor, a long way (and not just in terms of mileage) from the streets of Moss Side. She soon finds out that Jett is the only person who wishes to see Moira back. Kevin, his manager, Micky his producer, Gloria, his secretary all feel that she would disrupt their happy household. They tell Kate that she was a difficult person to deal with when she was still with Jett. Tamar, Jett’s current girlfriend, has no wish to see his ex-girlfriend back for obvious reasons. Neil, the hack journalist, is not so troubled by the idea of Moira being back as she could provide material for the Jett’s biography.
With the investigation into the Smart brothers going smoothly and the files of evidence ready to be passed over to the client, Kate sets out to search for Moira. Being a private investigator means that she can work in the shady area between the strictly legal and completely dodgy. She gains her first clues to Moira’s whereabout via a legitimate contact in financial services, and then a very illegal one via a friendly police officer willing to look on the Police National Computer, for a small fee of course.
These pieces of information paint a bleak picture of Moira’s life in the two years she’s been away from Jett. Kate is afraid that it would not be so much a case of Moira not wishing to be found as her not being able to be found, i.e., no long in the land of the living. She perseveres and her leads takes her to the Chapletown area of Leeds and to people living on the edge of society. Her investigations, undertaken with a lot of guts and subterfuge, is successful. Moira is still alive and is prepared to give Jett a chance to make up for the past. Job done for Kate, and she goes back to her normal routine work.
Six weeks later and a panicked phone call from Jett changes everything. Mortensen and Brannigan only deal with white collar crime, but now Kate is faced with the task of dealing with a murder. In a classic ‘locked door’ mystery all the protagonists at Colcutt Manor have a motive for murder and Kate is tasked by Jett to work out who did the deed. His experiences growing up in Moss Side means he doesn’t like or trust the police. The police, led by Inspector Jackson, take a dim view of Kate’s involvement in the case and she has to constantly bend the truth a little to stay the right side of the law lest she be arrested for obstructing a police investigation.
The Colcutt entourage, with their secrets and petty jealousies, prove to be fairly uncooperative but Kate uses her considerable people skills and guile to extract information from them all. As she pieces evidence together it becomes plain that this murder may have links to her other investigations, with the reasons for the murder wider and more complex than a simple case of jealous rivalry. Kate would rather be reading an Agatha Christie mystery than be part one, but she feels partly responsible for the situation as it was her willingness to find Moira that set off the train of events leading to murder.
Kate Brannigan takes on the dark side of human nature and its shady characters with a wry, dry sense of humour. Little surprises her about what people are prepared to do to get what they want, but she has not descended into complete downtrodden cynicism; she looks at Jett and his entourage and observes their absurdities, whether it’s Jett’s hippy-drippy new age/fundamentalist Christian beliefs, Tamar and Gloria’s insecurities or Nick’s cynical hope that his book will bring him fame and fortune. Written in 1992 the novel now has a nostalgic feel to it, both with Manchester as the ‘in’ place to be, and in the type of technology in use. Kate uses phone boxes to call the office, records are kept on paper files in cabinets and are gradually being transferred onto computers and floppy discs. ‘Madchester’ would turn into ‘Cool Britannia’, and it features the beginnings of our hyper-connected high-tech world of today. It contains nods to the future and a nod also to the past and classic crime whodunnits of Agatha Christie, a writer that inspired Val McDermid to be a crime writer herself.
Written by Janet - Library Assistant
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