Hens' Teeth

Reviewed by Andy Smart

Hen's teeth is Manda Scott's first novel. Set in the world of genetic engineering and medicine it is an enthralling and accomplished piece of writing (I even stretched my lunch break at work in order to finish a chapter). Her heroine, therapist Kellen Stewart, gets a phone call to tell her that her ex-lover Bridget the only one who ever mattered has died suddenly and in circumstances which indicate suicide. Neither Kellen nor Bridget's current partner Caroline believes for a minute that she killed herself, especially given that Bridget's scientist brother Malcolm had also died in mysterious circumstances. Assisted by her old medical school friend pathologist Lee Adams they set out to uncover the truth.

The local law is personified in the forms of Inspector McDonald, his chief superindentent Laidlaw (who you never actually meet but is symptomatic of all things that can be vile about law enforcement) and green-eyed constable Elspeth Phillips. To cap it all Kellen's partner Jan decides that she can't cope with Kellen's lack of communication any more and moves out till Kellen agrees to talk - Kellen's obsession with Bridget not helping matters. To add to this there are assorted cats, dogs, horses and chickens around the Scottish farm where the action mainly happens. The isolated rural setting is used to great effect, alternately being a warm haven of refuge, a magical landscape and a dark place full of horror; Scott handles the changes between these subtly and skilfully.

If there is one thing that I found disappointing it is that she doesn't make more of some of the minor characters, they offer great promise but always remain somehow two-dimensional. We never really find out about Elspeth's motivations (besides a possible interest in Kellen) and about the inevitable issues she faces as a lesbian in the police force. Also, given that Jan is Kellen's partner of three years (and she does have a central role in the plot) we don't really ever know that much about her or about their relationship. We also don't find out much about Lee's mad, and possibly psychic relative, Maire either, but given what we do see in her single appearance maybe that's no bad thing. Kellen, Lee and Caroline are very well-drawn however and you really feel like you know them by the end of the book. As always no clues as to the plot, nor about the ending.

One of the fascinating features of this book is that the characters have a full past despite this being a debut novel. Previous pieces of amateur detecting are hinted at, their rocky relationships with Laidlaw, etc. It's written as though there were quite a few 'Kellen Stewart' novels before this one and that you would use for background information.

I really liked this book a lot. It shows immense promise which I hope will be continued in many Kellen Stewart novels to come. I suggest you go and read it soon.

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