I love books that are completely real whilst also being darkly comic.

Welcome back to the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team, now on their fifth outing in a fictionalised, mid-Virus-epidemic-Edinburgh. Bernard is still surprised daily by the demands of his job, (which is supposed to be about healthcare but is really a sort of police team used by their boss to try to hush up political scandals that they’ve been instructed to smother by their boss,) but now he’s got a new boss, he hopes his work life might calm down long enough for him to go out to dinner with his girlfriend’s parents. This seems like a perfectly reasonable hope, which is why long time readers know Bernard has no chance of achieving this minor success.

What’s it about?

Two years into a devastating pandemic, food shortages are critical. When the government introduces ‘Consumable Purchase Restrictions’ (AKA rationing) the population are livid, so this is a bad time for Carlotta Carmichael, Virus Minister, to lose a lorryload of luxury foodstuffs meant to feed the V8 ministers. Determined to prevent protests flaring into riots, Carmichael instructs the HET to track down the lorry and its driver – immediately.

Remarkably, this proves not just easy to do, but is almost a pleasant break from tracking down the typical health defaulters (junkies, criminals and now ‘holiday defaulters’ – people who have somehow acquired a beautiful golden tan whilst being too ‘ill’ to attend their monthly health check), until Bernard and Maitland find a dead body in the lorry… Who is she? What happened? And will Carlotta Carmichael ever allow the truth to make the newspapers?

What’s it like?

Wonderfully accurate and entertaining. Kelly teams completely convincing characterisation with dark humour and murky situations until yet another ending that shows Mona striding off fearlessly in pursuit of the truth while her colleagues are still confirming the final outcomes of their latest investigation.

While Maitland bemoans his own lack of involvement in the latest violent trauma to befall poor Bernard, and Bernard frets about how to tell his girlfriend that he still wants to support his pregnant wife through her pregnancy, Mona is moving on to uncover The Truth about the virus, whatever that might be. Oh and Carole is still suing the HET after they decided to invoke the clause that means only your own death is a lawful excuse to stop turning up to work.

Final thoughts

I typically prefer stories where we don’t learn a lot about the background of the investigating team as I like the investigation to be the focus, but here the focus is really on the characters and the spot on depiction of the politicking surrounding the virus. The investigation is resolved as far as it is possible to do so, but like so many of these stories, there’s a tension between what the HET are allowed, even encouraged, to find out, and what they are actually allowed to share, which tends to lead to a similar feeling of not-quite-closure – which may be why stories in this series tend to end with Mona running into the distance, ready to keep seeking The Truth, which is the wider story arc encompassing the Health of Strangers series.

This could be read as a standalone but would be better read in order. If you think you like the sound of this then I’m confident you’ll enjoy starting with ‘The Health of Strangers’ and reading through the books in sequence. There is now quite a lot of recent history that Kelly needs to keep readers apprised of and so there were several brief recap paragraphs. These don’t disrupt the narrative but reinforce that these are stories which would benefit from being enjoyed in the sequence in which they were written.

‘Dead Man Driving’.
Lesley Kelly,
2023, Sandstone Press, paperback
Many thanks to Vertebrate Publishing for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.