Chris Brookmyre
Little, Brown, £18.99

Max Temple, professor of psychology and one of Britain’s favourite boffins, is dead. Best known for debunking the reasoning behind conspiracy theories, the “brilliant, funny, formidable; hectoring, authoritarian, manipulative; aloof, entitled and arrogant” scourge of woolly thinking will enliven the broadcasting schedules no more. “How much easier it is to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled,” he used to say, with an irony that doesn’t register until we’ve delved much deeper into his family life.

His widow, Celia, was once a TV sex symbol – a Brookmyresque blend of Jacqueline Pearce from Blake’s Seven and Doctor Who companion Lalla Ward – fondly remembered by a generation of teenage boys, a fact which boosted the professor’s reputation enormously, until in later years Max’s fame began to eclipse her own.

To commemorate her late husband, Celia has gathered the family together to scatter his ashes at the Portuguese villa where they spent many holidays, not taking into account that “Portugal was always the place where things came out, tensions that had boiled up, or issues that nobody had been prepared to broach at home.” This memorial was never going to go smoothly. Firstly, because the Temples are so dysfunctional that their “model family” façade is taken seriously by no one other than Celia herself. Secondly, because of what happened at the villa in 2002, when Max and Celia’s 18-month-old granddaughter, their daughter Silvie’s baby, was swept out to sea.

After that tragedy, Silvie reinvented herself, from “helpless and trapped little girl” to “cold-blooded bitch built to survive”. She’s Ivy Roan now, ruthless PR wizard, a workaholic control freak who breaks things off with lovers before they get close enough to see the real her. The rest of the family are uneasy, knowing that if trouble kicks off it will most likely be Ivy who starts it. They can’t forget the serious accusation made against their father by the teenage Silvie/Ivy, for which she has never apologised.

In the villa next door, neighbour Kirsten and her baby son have turned up too, with their new Canadian childminder but without husband and father Vince, who has been held up in London on business. His absence is a sign that there may be worse in store over the next few days than family arguments.

It’s around the midway point that the gloves come off and we see the nature of the darkness at the heart of the Temple family, and understand why someone might want to destroy it. And as it gets more uncomfortable to read, so does this novel become more compelling.

Having set up so many signposts to a disturbing, revelatory climax, all Brookmyre has to do is to let events take their course. And if some of them are a mite improbable, they make enough narrative sense that it matters little.

Humming along like a well-regulated machine, Fallen Angel shows how much Brookmyre has learned about planning and constructing a thriller, and how easily predictable plot developments can be blended with scarcely believable twists to gripping effect.