Black Widow | Chris Brookmyre | 2016 | Little, Brown | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
Diana Jager does not suffer fools lightly. A successful surgeon, she is fiercely independent, proud of her achievements (she prefers to retain her title of Doctor unlike many other surgeons) and is prepared to stand up for the rights of women in a sexist workplace. Her blog, written under the name of ‘Scalpelgirl’ and highlighting the inequalities and indignities endured by women in medicine, causes a stir across the medical community and triggers a witch hunt against the so-called ‘Bladebitch’. It’s not long before Diana is identified and she is driven from her hospital to start again at another in Inverness.
Keeping herself apart from everyone, Diana is probably the last person to expect to find love but she does. She falls in love with an IT officer at the hospital called Peter, a man who knows how to say exactly the right thing. It seems too good to be true and so it is. Within six months they are married and six months after that Peter is dead in a road accident. But Peter’s sister Lucy believes it was no accident and calls on Jack Parlabane to uncover the truth about the Black Widow.
So begins a clever, twisty and complex tale, given to us from three very different perspectives – Diana herself, Jack Parlabane and Ali, a detective on the case who has to have all her wits about her to unravel the strands of this knotted web. As we move back and forwards through time, the picture slowly builds of the relationship between Diana and Peter, their characters and the environment in which they lived and worked. But in Black Widow nothing is simple. After its initial empathy with the widowed bride, the media is fast to shift and soon Diana – Bladebitch and now the Black Widow – is judged and convicted by the public.
The stories we are told here are all different and it’s up to the reader to decide who to believe, all the time conscious of how the media, the public and society can prejudice our opinions. At the heart of the dilemma is our own opinion of Diana and also of Peter. It’s true that Diana’s not always likeable and this is increasingly supported by the reports gathered by Jack and Ali. But Diana’s own narrative slowly builds another portrait of a woman who has been harried throughout her career, who has a deep sense of care for her patients and for justice and who is human – even surgeons can make mistakes, people just prefer to believe that they don’t. There is a vulnerability to Diana – and to Jack and Ali – and these hidden sides help to make Black Widow a strongly character-driven puzzler. Not least because so little is as it seems. The shocks and twists when they come are jawdroppers.
This is, though, a dark tale, which meant I kept my emotional distance from several of the key characters. Nevertheless, even though I never particularly warmed to Diana, I was fascinated by her character and by her story. This is the first Jack Parlabane novel I’ve read but this only mattered in that I knew very little about Jack. Otherwise I think Black Widow stands very well alone.
I was gripped by Black Widow and full of admiration for its wonderfully complicated and clever structure. We are introduced to a whole range of witnesses through the novel and our position to them shifts continually. Someone can say one thing but later on in the novel we know that this could have meant something else entirely. This novel kept me on my toes and, if it’s possible to do this at the same time, on the edge of my seat.