Cath Staincliffe – Bitter Blue (2003)    

Bitter Blue is the 6th book in the Sal Kilkenny series. Kilkenny is a Manchester-based Private Investigator, and the books are noteworthy for attempting a realistic, indeed possibly naturalistic, portrait of the life of a private detective. 

When confronted with series books I often find that the comments I have made of one book apply equally to another. This can as true of authors I very much admire as of authors I do not. When reviewing for rte this becomes a real problem as one tries to find new ways of saying the same thing! Here I do not feel any such compunction and am therefore going to quote wholesale from my rte review of Missing (2007) ( , the 7th book in the series…… 

There is so much to commend in this book. Cath Staincliffe is about as close as it gets to a realistic PI writer (you could say naturalistic but we won’t get into that!) This needs qualifying, as for some reason realistic is often taken in the context of mystery fiction to indicate violence, gangs, psychopaths, noir; which of course are not in the least realistic if one is considering most people’s experience of life.This is not to say that Staincliffe’s view is in the least rose-tinted, but, in the first place, Sal Kilkenny’s private life is decidedly ordinary……… As a first-person narrator she is a comfortable, if a tad earnest, companion. When a traumatic event happens Sal is traumatised – and Staincliffe’s description of this is excellent.

The same thing is true of Staincliffe’s powerful and accurate location writing. As Val McDermid is quoted as saying of her work, Staincliffe writes of “the mean streets and leafy suburbs of Manchester.” The ‘and’ is very important – both features of Manchester are present, as is the renascent and booming city centre, and trips to inner-city Liverpool and the pleasant Yorkshire dales. Motorways and their specific features – a particular junction for instance – are carefully depicted. This is true realistic writing if by realistic we denote ordinary experiences of average people in 21st century England.

This is also true with her cases……………………………….she has her living to make and while fully engaged in the other two cases, she is clear about the fact that she is charging her clients. And so those clients have to be people who are in a position to pay for a PI; not super-rich but certainly earning. Once again the approach is realistic.In all these areas Staincliffe’s writing is commendable and a wonderful tonic in the face of the absurd gang-lords, spooks and other absurdities who often pose as realistic in other mysteries. But . . . 

All these comments apply equally to Bitter Blue. However my big reservation about Missing – the ‘but’ – was its lack of any real link between the three cases involved and the resulting lack of structure: I wrote “as an integrated mystery novel . . . well Missing just isn’t one”.    

In fact, in this sense, Bitter Blue is a better book. Here we have two cases which Sal takes on professionally: in one she is hired by a young woman called Lucy Barker to find out who is sending her hate notes, and in another a young upwardly mobile couple want a ‘peace of mind’ report on a house they are thinking of buying – is the neighbourhood a quiet one, untroubled by crime, anti-social elements or the wrong sort of people? While engaged on the latter investigation Sal comes across an old couple who it is clear are living in appalling conditions, and also a young woman (whose name we finally learn is Minty) who has just been beaten up. On top of all this Sal’s 7-year-old daughter Maddie is behaving strangely and having problems at school. Now in amongst this promising mix there are the raw materials for a very good book. The acid tests as to whether this could be accomplished are to what degree the plot-lines are linked (and hence a structure provided), and whether the solutions to any of the narratives are interesting and compelling (the mystery element). Does Bitter Blue pass these tests? Well – partially. It turns out that the themes involved in the Lucy Barker, Minty and Maddie stories are to some extent related. Certainly they are all related in that the truth in each case comes as a considerable surprise to Sal, challenging her preconceptions and her self-belief. Indeed in the wake of the outcome of the Lucy Barker story, which is the main one, she is thrown into uncertainty as to whether she will continue as a Private Investigator at all (obviously she does or Missing would not have been written!). In some ways this is the strongest aspect of the book and Staincliffe’s willingness to challenge a shibboleth in the case of Minty is very refreshing (that sounds like a toothpaste commercial!). And the solution of the Lucy Barker story, which is the book’s mystery, is satisfying enough (even though I found the climactic Woman in Jeopardy scene tedious – but then I almost always do). The nagging doubt in my mind is that given these elements and this story the book should have been better. I feel that Staincliffe does not order and present her materials in the best possible way: the book needs more structure, more narrative tension, more thematic linking. Yes, this might challenge the ‘realism’ but it would make the book more powerful, engrossing and satisfying.    

The other noteworthy feature of this book is just how incompetent Sal is. I realised I nearly said that this was implausible – but of course it is not. But having now very much in the forefront of my mind the talk Sophie Hannah gave at St Hilda’s on plausibility (see I analysed this reaction, and realised that I was annoyed with Sal’s incompetence because I want to believe that my protagonists are a bit smarter than that. This is obviously pretty silly. So in this case the process of analysing the charge of implausibility fully bears out Hannah’s thesis that we use the term for something in which we do not want to believe.    

Bitter Blue has what it would seem are the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of Staincliffe’s writing, which in many ways are the strengths and weaknesses of an over-reliance on and over-emphasis of realism. It is a better book than its successor (not altogether a promising sign!) because it manages some degree of thematic linkage and a better narrative structure, but it still falls a way short of what a better plotter/narrator could achieve with these materials.