Book Review: Songs By Dead Girls

Songs By Dead Girls is the fast-paced follow-up to the hugely successful book, The Health of Strangers. Once again I found myself immediately hooked into this compelling thriller, packed with twists, dead-ends, dead-beats and laugh-out-loud humour. Spanning another catastrophic working week, you’ll find the cliff-hanger ending has you craving book #3 …

contemporary fiction | thriller | crime | mystery

Rating: 3 out of 5.

back cover blurb

Bernard wrenched open the door and ran back out to Carole, horrified to see her face was pouring with blood.

A deadly Virus. A missing academic with a head full of secrets that could embarrass the government. A prostitute on the run. And a music-loving drug baron who needs a favour.

All in a day’s work for the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team.

Author Lesley Kelly | Published bySandstone Press Ltd in July 2019 | Pages332 (paperback)

Songs by Dead Girls is the second book in the hugely successful Health of Strangers series. You can read my review of book #1 here

my thoughts

Having just recently read the first book in this series – The Health of Strangers – I was immediately hooked, and ordered my copy of Songs By Dead Girls within a day or so of finishing book #1.  I’d loaned my copy of The Health of Strangers to a friend who also enjoyed it so much that she’d devoured it in a matter of days too, so I felt I ought to crack on with book #2 straight away.  Pfffft!  Who am I kidding … I didn’t really need any encouragement whatsoever to dive straight in to Songs By Dead Girls, bumping it up my TBR pile with unceremonious haste. 

I’ve seen a handful of reviews by readers who haven’t read the previous book first – personally I’d recommend you do read The Health of Strangers before you get stuck in to Songs By Dead Girls.  The story isn’t complicated so you could easily pick it up, but you’ll get a far better feel for the characters if you start at the beginning … and they’re great characters so you’ll enjoy getting to know them.  

Once again, the team at North Edinburgh’s HET have been tasked with tracing a high-profile missing health defaulter.  This time the defaulter is Alexander Bircham-Fowler … Professor Bircham-Fowler … as in, Scotland’s leading authority on the virus, and advocate of the monthly health check policy. If the professor misses his own health check his credibility will be in tatters.  Mona and Paterson are assigned to the case and, due to its sensitivity, it’s to be investigated in the strictest of confidence so they’re not even to tell the rest of their team … in fact they’re told to return to the office and declare they’re both taking a couple of days annual leave.  Now that kind of announcement is bound to raise eyebrows, and just a few smutty comments from the predictably gutter-minded Maitland. 

In a moment of madness, Paterson puts Maitland in charge whilst he’s away, sparking a fit of impotent fury from Bernard. This was a clever plot decision by the author as it immediately guarantees we readers will see as much drama in the office as we’re anticipating for Mona’s forthcoming investigation.

Mona and Paterson’s early enquiries take them to the Prof’s office where they meet Theresa, his indomitable secretary – and Margaret Thatcher lookalike – who takes the secrecy part of her job title’s nomenclature extremely seriously.  Whilst Mona’s suspicions are raised, Paterson appears to be anxious to close the investigation as fast as possible. But readers of The Health of Strangers will know that stopping a speeding train with your teeth would be easier than pulling Mona back from a whiff of suspicion … so with Mona’s determination and a sudden spirit of cooperation from Theresa the pair find themselves dispatched to London on the trail of the missing professor. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, back at the office Maitland has taken root in Paterson’s office, seemingly to enhance his newfound – albeit temporary – authority, and to magnify his ability to torment Bernard.  However, the boss gloss rapidly loses its shine as the paperwork and admin threaten to engulf both the office and the man behind behind the desk … much to Bernard’s conflicting delight and chagrin.  Whilst he fires as many barbs in Maitland’s trapped direction as he can, the daily grind doesn’t stop for bruised egos and so he’s sent on his way to find a missing defaulter, with Carole for backup.  What could possibly go wrong?

“Their heads might not be held high, but at least they would still be attached to their bodies.”

As we know from The Health of Strangers, the cases investigated by North Edinburgh HET have a habit of being a shade trickier – and messier – to clear up than an outbreak of salacious gossip.  And now we have Bernard and Carole released into Edinburgh without the wherewithal to defend themselves from a litter of kittens, let alone any real threats; we have Maitland in charge of the office and admin, and now summoned to represent the HET at tomorrow’s Parliamentary Committee meeting; and we have the only two team members with any real nous hundreds of miles away pounding the streets of London’s South Bank.

So, what exactly doesn’t wrong?

Well, they do manage to find the Prof in London, and Bernard does get to the bottom of his own missing defaulter investigation.  Oh, and Maitland does make it to the Committee meeting.  That’s pretty much where the list of successes comes to an end. Because unfortunately there are ‘spooks’ in London who’ll stop nothing (including two HET enforcers and a MET Police officer) to prevent the Prof making it to his health check. And because Bernard and Carole accidentally apprehend the wrong girl leaving Carole with a smashed-up jaw and Bernard in the centre of an East-Coast / West-Coast drugs turf war. And also because Maitland would’ve been better off pulling a no-show at the Committee meeting rather than putting in a performance that inspired Carlotta Carmichael – dreaded boss of the boss’s boss – to pay the North Edinburgh HET office a personal visit.

“No, I don’t know what time her broomstick will be landing. Maybe we’ll be forewarned by the swarm of bats”

Nestled in amongst the fast-paced main storylines are nuggets of acerbic humour, and events uncannily similar to those that continue to dominate our own daily lives in the shadow of Coronavirus.  I really enjoyed both these elements of book #1, and I was pleased to see the characters are still bickering and sniping at each other in Songs By Dead Girls.  Once again the characters have all been written so well that you’ll be drawn ever tighter into their lives; whilst Maitland’s love life appears to be in its ascendancy, poor Bernard finds himself living in a flatshare and wading through the initial stages of divorce from his beloved Carrie … but his aching heart is somewhat salved by a burgeoning crush on his landlady. Meanwhile, in the fast lane of the northbound M1, Mona inadvertently enlightens her blinkered boss about her sexuality, temporarily distracting him from the death-glares being fired at him by his estranged son, Greg … and yet here’s Greg, Paterson and Mona kettled together in an airless, fart-filled hire car with a drugged-up professor on a torturously long journey from London to Edinburgh.

More by luck than by professional prowess the team are reunited in a somewhat tidier office; Paterson with additional bruises, Carole with missing teeth and an unintelligible speech impediment, Mona even more furious than usual, Maitland distinctly sheepish, and hapless Bernard a nervous wreck entangled in a complicated blackmail pact with the head of Edinburgh’s criminal underworld. So it’s fair to say that quite a lot of things didn’t go to plan for the team this week.

As with book #1, Songs By Dead Girls spans a catastrophic Monday to Friday working week, with the book being arranged into five sections reflecting each day.  The chapters making up each section are punchy and pacy page-turners, and you’ll find you’re approaching the end of each day faster than a bored admin assistant could dream of.

Songs By Dead Girls is brimful of twists, blind-spots and dead-ends that will keep you guessing to the very end … and waiting for you at the end of the book is another cracking cliff-hanger.  You’ll find yourself questioning exactly who’s behind the conspiracy to discredit the Professor, what they’re trying to hide, and who can still be trusted … but you won’t get your answers here.  Because that’s where the book runs out of pages; that’s our cliff hanger.  Personally, I enjoyed this book so I know I’ll be ordering its sequel – Death at The Plague Museum – very soon.

Buy Songs By Dead Girls direct from Sandstone Press‘s own online bookshop (the lovely people of @sandstonepress have set up some very competitive deals here ☺️)

Alternatively, you can also buy from Amazon | Waterstones

about Lesley Kelly

Lesley Kelly has worked in the public and voluntary sectors for the past twenty years, dabbling in poetry and stand-up comedy along the way. She has won a number of writing competitions, including The Scotsman’s Short Story award in 2008.​ Her first novel, A Fine House in Trinity, was published by Sandstone Press in 2016, and was longlisted for the William McIlvanney Prize. Her Health of Strangers series is published by Sandstone Press in 2017. ​​She lives in Edinburgh with her husband and two sons.

Website | Amazon | GoodReads | Twitter

One thought on “Book Review: Songs By Dead Girls

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s