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Wednesday 21 February 2024

‘Sharp Scratch’ by Martine Bailey

Published by Allison & Busby,
22 February 2024.
978-0-7490-3084-1  (HB)

We only need to watch the news to know that hospitals are dangerous places, and in Martine Bailey’s view it was much the same back in the 1980s, when the NHS was in the throes of one of its many reorganizations.

Human Resources, or Personnel as it was still known back then, was almost literally in the middle of the shake-up, and Lorraine Quick, Bailey’s protagonist, finds herself reluctantly at the sharp end, administering the latest fad, psychometric tests, to the applicants for a top job. It’s not just the tests she’s reluctant about; she’s a single mum and needs the job as hospital personnel officer to support her young daughter, but she’d far rather be playing guitar in her post-punk band. 

But then Lorraine’s only friend on the hospital admin staff is killed in suspicious circumstances and the police get involved. All the evidence points to the candidates for the top job, and forward-looking Detective Sergeant Diaz thinks the tests could be instrumental in spotting the killer. Lorraine is less certain, and in any case the rules governing the tests forbid her to share them with him – until there’s another suspicious death, and the rules threaten to fly out of the window.

It’s all set against the background of a shabby, under-resourced hospital, the kind of place where a cloakroom is repurposed as a clinic. There are occasional forays into Lorraine’s even shabbier rented house, an attic where the band rehearse, a former nurses’ home, and several other locations, all well drawn with their own unique atmospheres.  

The plot moves along at a cracking pace, but the really interesting part is the way each character reacts, not only to the murders but also to the psychometric tests. Diaz’s boss, the rather more old-school DCI Brunt, thinks they’re a load of rubbish. Mike McClung, the reclusive hospital engineer, is scared of what they might reveal about him. Doctor Strang thinks they’re beneath him. Raj the computer expert is convinced the police will try to frame him. And then there’s chief nurse Felicity Jardine, who seems to think long eyelashes and plenty of cleavage are more important than any test.

Question after question emerges. Will Diaz persuade Brunt to look beyond the obvious? Is Lorraine’s band destined for the big time? What secret is Diaz harbouring? And who is the mysterious Christie? All this and more is revealed by the end, though not without plenty of the twists and turns that will make you wonder how anyone survived hospital life. It’s a jolly good read which made me want to see more from Martine Bailey.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Martine Bailey entered cookery contest with no idea it would lead to a life-changing obsession with French cuisine. As an amateur cook, Martine won the Merchant Gourmet Recipe Challenge and was a former UK Dessert Champion, cooking at Le Meurice in Paris. Inspired by eighteenth-century household books of recipes, An Appetite for Violets invites readers to feast on the past as a sharp-witted young cook is taken on a mysterious trip to Italy. In pursuit of authenticity Martine studied with food historian Ivan Day and experienced Georgian food and fashion at firsthand with an historic re-enactment society. Martine lives in Cheshire, England and Auckland, New Zealand. She is married with one son.  The Almanack is her latest book. Published in January 2019

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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