The Health of Strangers
Published 2017, Sandstone Press
This is the first book in a (currently) four part speculative crime fiction series set in Edinburgh, that was first published in 2017, yet spookily foreshadows the current pandemic. I’ve seen comparisons with the Slough House series, but the ressemblance is superficial – yes it’s about a team of misfits forced to do an apparently tedious job, who find themselves out of their depth when someone goes missing, but otherwise that’s where the similarities end.
A deadly strain of avian influenza has already killed a million people within a few years in the UK. The Health Enforcement Team are a branch of the Public Health department, staffed by a mixture of police and health officers who are immune to “The Virus” from having survived it, whose role is to chase up defaulters who have missed their mandatory monthly check-ups. Mona, Bernard, Maitland and Carole, and their grumpy boss Patterson, don’t particularly like each other, or the job, but are getting on with it until they can return to their careers. Then they are asked to investigate a sensitive case – the student daughter of a German politician has gone missing, after getting involved with a religious cult. As the team find links to another missing girl, their enquiries will uncover a dangerous plot: can they learn to work together before someone is killed?
Reading this three years into the Covid pandemic, it’s fascinating seeing how accurate Kelly was in predicting the social, legal, medical and political effects, including the flourishing of conspiracy theories and the growth of futile alternative remedies. Unfortunately for her, this may well have deterred people from trying the series, as it might all have felt too close to reality – this should change as time passes. Ironically, the HETs may be the one thing that were not part of the real life response – I’m not aware of Scotland introducing regular health checks, and can’t see how these would work in practice. The virus featured here is more deadly, particularly to young people, there’s no vaccine and not much in the way of treatment. There’s not much mention of lockdowns, but given the story is set a couple of years into the outbreak, and drip feeds information as relevant to the plot, that’s less relevant anyway.
I enjoyed getting to know the characters here – there’s no clear hero, and none is particularly likeable, which made them more interesting: Mona is prickly, ambitious despite a career hiccup, and a bit bossy. Bernard is infuriatingly introspective, overly cautious and determined to follow the rules – no wonder they don’t gel as a team. Maitland is a sexist MCP, Carole is too distracted by her son’s illness to be much use, and Patterson isn’t afraid to tell them how useless he thinks they all are. He’s nowhere near as obnoxious as Jackson Lamb though, and there’s not the same vicious humour that characterises the Slow Horses books – these characters are much more polite!
The mystery aspect is well done, there are strategically placed red herrings to keep the outcome from being too predictable. I particularly enjoyed all the Edinburgh-specific details, having lived there throughout my 20s, so could visualise most of the locations. I found the ending a bit abrupt, so am looking forward to reading the next one to find out what happens next!