What You Pay For by Claire Askew 5* #review @onenightstanzas @hodderbooks

I absolutely loved Claire Askew’s first novel, All The Hidden Truths, which featured DI Helen Birch. You can read my review of that here. Claire kindly took part in my Author Spotlight feature recently where she spoke about why Portobello was an important place to set her novel. You can read that here. Claire Askew’s second novel, also featuring Birch, What You Pay For, will be published in just over two weeks and I’m delighted to share my review today.

As you can see from that stunning cover showing my home city’s glorious skyline, Edinburgh is an important part of this book and there’s a strong sense of place throughout. I mentioned in my review of the first book that Birch lives just down the road from me (we even use the same Chinese) and in this book there are lots of references to Portobello which I loved. I was ridiculously excited when she parked her car one street up from mine! But enough of my rambling, what did I think of the book?

The book begins with a tense stand-off on the Forth at Queensferry where, following a tip-off by an informer, the police hope to finally catch the infamous leader of a feared and violent criminal organisation. This takes place on the 14th anniversary of Birch’s brother Charlie’s disappearance. This is always a difficult day for her. She joined the police to try to track him down and has always been convinced that he is still alive. Exhausted, she heads home but instead of finding it her usual place of peace, she experiences fear in her home. It no longer feels a place of safety to retreat to after a shift but a place she feels uneasy, watched, under threat even.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Charlie comes back (it’s in the blurb) and that he is connected with the case. The story is told in alternate chapters as we hear not just from Birch but also discover what actually happened to her brother in his own words. It shows just what can happen when good people get caught up in bad situations. This gives Birch a huge ethical dilemma. What is more important to her – her family or the case?

This is a dark story with strong language and violence but there’s nothing gratuitous. It’s all necessary to show the kind of people Birch was up against and the kind of people Charlie had been involved with.

This book is quite different from All The Hidden Truths in that the focus is much more on Birch’s private life and the difficult situation she found herself in. It was fascinating to read about her inner turmoil as her loyalties swayed between her family and her job, in particular the case she was working on. A case that could see one of the most wanted, toughest criminals in Glasgow finally caught, but a case that put her and those she loved in grave danger. It was also fascinating yet disturbing to hear how Charlie had been caught up in this underworld. It showed how easy it might be for anyone to get involved with situations they really didn’t want to and how they could, to a certain extent, justify what they were doing. And it also showed how difficult and dangerous it could be to try to get out when they decided enough was enough.

I thought this was a brilliant book and I devoured it over one warm, cloudy, sunny, windy, rainy weekend – Scottish summer at its finest. The short chapters made it almost impossible for me to put down, as the viewpoints shifted rapidly from one character to the other. With the events in the book taking place over just a week (at least from Birch’s point of view), it was a fast paced read. What You Pay For is a tense and absorbing read and a very satisfying book. Claire Askew makes it seem like the tricky second novel is a breeze with her accomplished and compelling writing. I can’t wait to read more about DI Birch.

My thanks to Louise Swannell at Hodder Books for sending me a review copy of this book. It will be published in hardback and as an e-book on 22nd August. I’d like to recommend you buy or order your copy from an independent bookshop if you can. In Edinburgh, that could be the excellent Golden Hare Books or the latest addition to Portobello High Street, The Portobello Bookshop. Or you could order from Hive which gives a percentage of sales to local bookshops, you can choose which one to support. If you prefer a Kindle copy, you can order one online here: What You Pay For

From the back of the book

DI Helen Birch faces a terrible choice – family or justice? – in the gripping second novel from the author of All the Hidden Truths

DI Birch joined the police to find her little brother, who walked out of his life one day and was never seen again. She stayed to help others, determined to seek justice where she could.

On the fourteenth anniversary of Charlie’s disappearance, Birch takes part in a raid on one of Scotland’s most feared criminal organisations. It’s a good day’s work – a chance to get a dangerous man off the streets.

Two days later, Charlie comes back. It’s not a coincidence. When Birch finds out exactly what he’s been doing all those years, she faces a terrible choice: save the case, or save her brother. But how can you do the right thing when all the consequences are bad?

As she interrogates Charlie, he tells his story: of how one wrong turn leads to a world in which the normal rules no longer apply, and you do what you must to survive.

From one of the most acclaimed new voices in crime fiction, What You Pay For is a brilliantly tense and moving novel about the terrible disruption caused by violence and the lines people will cross to protect those they love.

About the author

Photo credit: Lewis Khan

Claire Askew is a poet, novelist and the current Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh. Her debut novel in progress was the winner of the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, and longlisted for the 2014 Peggy Chapman-Andrews (Bridport) Novel Award. Claire holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and has won a variety of accolades for her work, including the Jessie Kesson Fellowship and a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. 

Her debut poetry collection, This changes things, was published by Bloodaxe in 2016 and shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and a Saltire First Book Award. In 2016 Claire was selected as a Scottish Book Trust Reading Champion, and she works as the Scotland tutor for women’s writing initiatives Write Like A Grrrl! and #GrrrlCon.

Her first novel, All the Hidden Truths, was published in 2018.


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