AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK // REVIEW BY CRAIG KELLY
James McCrone’s Bastard Verdict is a Scottish political thriller with the emphasis on ‘thrill’. You might think I am having you on—how could a novel set in the world of Scottish politics, sometimes focused on local political procedure, be described as thrilling?
Reading the Bastard Verdict is akin to watching The Bourne Identity or Taken or any film starring Vin Diesel. It has it all—nefarious security services, car chases, state-sanctioned assassinations, and a plot drawn from the wackier fringes of Scotland’s nationalist movement.
The story focuses on FBI Elections Specialist, Imogen Trager, who, while on sabbatical at Glasgow University, becomes embroiled in an investigation into the integrity of the first Scottish independence referendum. The context is the Scottish Government pushing for a second referendum, and their desire to ensure it goes smoothly with no interference from MI5 or other shadowy forces. Not that officials believe the first referendum was rigged—far from it—but they want the second referendum to be beyond reproach.
So far so believable, but after several key figures die in mysterious circumstances, it becomes clear that forces in Westminster are doing everything possible to quash Trager’s investigation. By everything, I mean literally everything.
This is where it is helpful if you park your belief at the door. We are thrown into a frantic cat-and-mouse chase as Trager and her associates seek evidence that the first independence referendum was not, in fact, a fair contest. There is a wonderful cast of secondary characters throughout this novel—fully fleshed out and likeable, and in some ways more relatable than Trager. Imogen’s desire to always do the right thing becomes a little tiresome, as does her constantly castigating herself for past events.
In terms of the secondary characters, I have a slight gripe with the presentation of accents which did not always work for me. The Dundee accent is unique and hard to capture—I wondered if it would be better to not try.
There is a point in the book where Imogen has a pint with some local SNP activists who were at the 2014 count in Dundee. Part of their role was to sample the boxes as they were counted to get an early indication of how the vote would go. I had to laugh because I was one of these people in real life.
You see, in some ways I am either the best or worst person to review this novel. I was involved with the SNP in Dundee at the time of the referendum, and I was at the count which, without giving away any spoilers, receives a lot of attention in this novel. This is perhaps why I found the plot of Bastard Verdict hard to swallow at points. With that said, I have just deleted a paragraph in this review which was more critical of the plot because this novel took me back to a time that feels far more remote than a mere nine years ago.
I do not believe MI5, or anyone else for that matter, interfered with the referendum. I also struggle to imagine extrajudicial killings on the streets of the UK. And yet, I remember being at the Dundee count when the fire alarm went off, and we were all ushered outside. I remember being pushed back from the open door so we could not see inside the hall. A hall filled with boxes of ballots and votes splayed across unwatched tables. I remember our anger and suspicion. And I remember it happening not once, but twice throughout the evening.
It was the perfect set of circumstances to birth a conspiracy theory.
The Bastard Verdict will appeal to fans of political conspiracies and those who like their novels brimming with action. If you are seeking a light summer read which will have you shouting, “just one more chapter”, and you have a passing interest in politics, then the Bastard Verdict is well worth your time.