First published in Great Britain in 2016; published by Atlantic Monthly Press on November 1, 2016
Jack Parlabane is an investigative journalist who, as series readers will recall, is not always on good terms with the government. Or, for that matter, with newspaper editors. He’s looking to get back in the game when Peter Elphinstone’s sister asks him to investigate Peter’s presumed death. Also investigating is PC Ali Kazmi. Making an occasional cameo is DS Catherine McLeod, who stars in another series of books by Scottish novelist Christopher Brookmyre.
Peter’s car went off the road and into a river. Perhaps Peter had an accident, but if he was murdered, the prime suspect is his wife, Diane Jager. Diane is a surgeon who, for a time, blogged about sexism in the medical profession. She blogged anonymously until her blog was hacked and her identity exposed. She experienced blowback due to unfortunate things she said about her colleagues, who were easily identified once her identity was made known.
Jager blamed the fiasco on her employer’s IT technicians, who failed to protect her from hackers. Yet she married Peter, an IT tech, a few years later. Peter was estranged from his father, who happens to be a wealthy and politically connected man from whom Peter was destined to inherit nothing.
Brookmyre does a nice job of showing both Diana’s perspective on her marriage (in the first person) and her husband’s perspective (as filtered through people who knew him). The clever ways in which Brookmyre presents and withholds information make the reader sympathize with one spouse and then the other, without really knowing whether either of them are worth the sympathy. That continues throughout the novel and is, I think, the key to the story’s success. Readers who like clear-cut heroes and villains might dislike Black Widow for that reason, but the ambiguity contributed to my unwavering interest in the story.
Satisfying twists at the end confirm that the journey is worth taking. Some aspects of the ending I managed to guess, but key details came as a true surprise. Whether it was entirely believable is another question, but the story never goes so far over the top as to become outrageously implausible.
Although this is a Parlabane novel, Parlabane is almost a secondary character for most of the story. Early chapters focus on Diane and Peter and their acquaintances. There isn’t as much drama in Parlabane’s life in this novel as in the last one, although he endures a bit of personal drama before the story is over. Parlabane regains center stage toward the end, but Brookmyre’s decision to underplay his role gives the other characters a chance to develop. Brookmyre is a masterful crime writer and Black Widow is a deft performance, both in plot development and in convincing characterizations.