Books & Literature

Book Review: The Scarlet Cross, by Lyn McFarlane

THRILLER: An atmospheric and intelligent crime thriller set in a hospital where nothing is as it seems.

Slow-moving at the start, but you can believe it really happened by the end.

Feature image credit: Pantera Press

Using the pen name Lyn McFarlane, former journalist and now author Linda Gough delights us with her debut novel The Scarlet Cross. The novel showed much promise all the way through, having won the 2019 Arthur Ellis Unhanged Award for best unpublished manuscript.

The story centres on lead nurse Meredith Griffin, who manages the emergency department at St Jude Hospital. Having completed her specialty in psychiatry, she becomes suspicious when a few women whose cause of death is labelled as suicide all have the same fatal injury. With the help of her boyfriend Detective Leo Donnelly and others, she investigates further. In doing so, she must confront her own personal dilemmas as well as put her job on the line, as she discovers the powers in her own organisation would rather hide the truth.

The book is slow-moving at the start with a gradual weaving in of each character’s background to make them believable, and although this provides sufficient depth to explain behaviours, it did not evoke much emotion from me as a reader. For example, protagonist Griffin strongly loves her sister, and rushes to her aid constantly, yet she never acknowledges that her sister is also a burden.  If Griffin is fatigued and stressed, she never breaks down; she just keeps on going. The indefatigability of Griffin may make one liken or admire the character, however to me it felt unemotional, as despite the background of the siblings’ relationship eventually being revealed, this behaviour seemed unfathomable.

This is also despite the author describing in detail how Griffin has an addiction as a coping mechanism. We hear everything in Griffin’s mind as she talks about her drug, and how her desire for it is constantly intercepting her thoughts, yet this happens mainly when her relationships with colleagues unsettle her, not in the relationship with her sister.

The narrative goes back and forth in time to confuse the reader as to which of Griffin’s colleagues is doing the wrong thing. These interjections of time throughout the chapters pepper it with mystery and provide context for understanding the next part of the story, or the next plot twist. Actions by or between certain people at first don’t make a lot of sense, but by the end they are all wound up.

It is amazing that this is a debut book, as it is incredibly detailed, using a lot of specific types of knowledge (the research of which the author credits at the end). Her investigative skills as a journalist no doubt shine through in the narrative. For example, she describes the internal workings of a hospital and its psychiatric arm in depth. The text includes richly detailed accounts of religion, erotomania, self-harming, addiction, medical research, their funders, and stereotypes.

McFarlane is a member of the Australian Society of Authors and the Crime Writers of Canada. The Scarlet Cross is an excellent first novel with all the elements that make for a brilliant detective novel. It has several events to make you guess wrong, enough relationship detail to make you want the villain to be someone in particular, and includes the frustrating parts of detective work, including the tiny missing pieces interjected throughout that require the reader to connect the dots.

If this novel is only the start, I look forward to seeing more.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily of Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Pantera Press
Released: March 2022
RRP: $29.99

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