The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean

An excellent beginning…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the redemption of alexander seaton 3A storm is raging in Banff in the north-east of Scotland as Alexander Seaton makes his way home from the inn so, when he sees a man staggering in the street, Alexander assumes he is the worse for drink and hurries on by to get out of the rain. When the man’s dead body is found the next day in the schoolroom where Alexander teaches, his feelings of guilt are compounded when his friend Charles Thom is arrested for the murder. Convinced of Charles’ innocence, Alexander sets out with his old friend and mentor, Dr Jaffray, to find out who really murdered Patrick Davidson.

The book is set in 1626, a time when an uneasy peace holds sway in Scotland. All those pesky 16th century Queens are dead and the crowns of Scotland and England are united, though not yet their parliaments. The Protestants are in the ascendancy and the Kirk has a stranglehold on religion and morality, but the Catholics are still plotting, and looking to the great Catholic countries of Europe for support. And witch-hunting is still at its peak, led and encouraged by the more rabid members of the hellfire-and-damnation Kirk, often culminating in public burnings. Happy days!

MacLean has caught the feel of this time-period just about perfectly in my opinion. She gives the impression of knowing the history inside-out and her characters ring true as people living in this time. Seaton and Jaffray are on the more enlightened side, though of course the actual Enlightenment is still some way off, but MacLean doesn’t fall into the trap of giving them anachronistically modern viewpoints. So, for example, while being horrified at the attitude of the mob to witch-burnings, they’re not quite ready to deny the possibility of witchcraft and consorting with the Devil.

Seaton is the first-person, past-tense narrator of the story and he is a great main character. Destined to be a minister in the Kirk, some event happened that led to his disgrace and he is now back in his home town working as an undermaster in the local school. While his one or two true friends have stood by him, many of the rest of the goodly people of the town treat him almost as a social outcast and his own feelings of guilt have brought him close to despair. The reader doesn’t find out what the event was until well on into the novel, but as Seaton gets involved in the investigation into Patrick Davidson’s death, he begins to feel again that his life may have some purpose beyond his failed calling to the ministry.

Shona MacLean
Shona MacLean

The plot is complex but entirely credible, leading the reader merrily up several false trails along the way. The quality of the writing is excellent and the characterisation throughout is very strong, not just of the main players but of the secondary characters too. And the wide-ranging nature of the plot allows MacLean to show something of the politics and religion of the time without ever resorting to information dump. There’s almost a feeling of a coming-of-age story to it, as the initially fairly naive Seaton begins to learn about some of the undercurrents in this seemingly so respectable society.

The plot and some of the occurrences make this far too strong to be considered a cosy, but it avoids graphic violence and gore, and is mercifully free of foul language and sex scenes. For the non-Scots out there, it’s also free of dialect – standard English throughout but for the very occasional specifically Scottish word, for which a short glossary is included at the back.

An excellent historical crime novel, well up there with the likes of Brother Cadfael, and the joy of it is it’s the first in a series. Highly recommended – the second one has already been added to my TBR.

Book 14
Book 14

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58 thoughts on “The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean

  1. …and I hope you’ll like that second one, too, FictionFan. I do like MacLean’s work. As you say, she certainly creates an authentic sense of 17th Century Scotland, and the characters do ring true. What I also like is that she uses dialogue quite effectively. It’s modern enough that contemporary readers don’t have any difficulty (well, not this one, anyway) understanding what’s going on. Yet, it reflects the era quite well. That takes a deft hand! I really am glad you enjoyed this as much as you did. 🙂

    • I suspect this is a series I’ll be following all the way – her writing is so good, and the historical aspects seem very accurate to me, this being the little bit of history I probably know most about. Yes, I agree about the dialogue – that’s always tricky in historical fiction, and she manages to make it readable without sounding anachronistically modern. It reminded me very much of the Brother Cadfael books actually – same tone, same blending of history with human interest, same likeability of the lead character. Has left me wanting to re-read them too, in fact… *sighs*

  2. I very much like the sound of this… historical crime is always very compelling (to me, anyway). The investigations are always so much more interesting without the dull encumbrances of DNA and CCTV and yawnsome stuff like that. Throw in a bit of superstition and I’m well away.

    • Absolutely! I think that’s what I enjoy so much about them too – there have to be clues and red herrings, and while there might be the equivalent of autopsies, they don’t feel such an urgent desire to remove and weigh the major organs! And there was enough about the witchcraft in this to make an interesting aside without getting too much in the way of the main plot – definitely one of the best historical fictions I’ve read in a while…

    • I’m so glad you recommended it, Margaret, and just sorry it took me so long to actually get around to reading it! On the upside though, that means I’ve still got all the rest to look forward to… 😀

  3. Humm. Sounds interesting. I agree with Portergirl – the absence of DNA testing, CCTV and all the whizz-bang electronic stuff will be an utter, utter joy. I might well investigate! Particularly now you have given it the FictionFan clearance of titillatory graphic slashings and gorings, and a similarly free from grauitous sex and unnecessary ladlefulls of bad language, all of which are used by the creatively impoverished to try and show how cutting edge they are, whereas they only display sheeplike conformity and tedious lack of imagination . Oops, who on earth got on the wrong side of me this morning, then?? – This sounds worthy of a cautious elevation to the TBR. I hope the wobbly pile won’t fall over………..

    • Yes, I love that about historical fiction – it forces the author to have a proper mystery rather than just a technical investigation. And, of course, they can pick an interesting time period to take the place of all that ‘grittiness’ aka ‘sleaziness’ that fills so much modern crime. This is more Cadfael than Shardlake, but seems to me her grasp of history is just as good as Sansom’s. Well worth a read when you’re in the mood for something a shade lighter, but still interesting…

  4. This one sounds delightful! Call me a prude, but I, too, prefer novels without a lot of graphic violence, cursing, and explicit sex scenes. I don’t know much about that time period in Scotland, but I’ll bet I’d find it fascinating. Thanks for another great review, FF!

    • Yes, I’m sure there’s lots of us, maybe the majority, who don’t feel the need for all that to make a good story. And I do like when a book has a strong plot, like this one, but manages to keep it mainly to mystery solving rather than turning into a thriller halfway through. It’s probably the bit of history I know most about (though that’s not saying much!) and I was pleased that it came over as so authentic… definitely a good one!

  5. Sounds like a winner! Although happy times indeed… I think I’d take pesky queens over witch hunts. It soon found its way across the Atlantic. Not to be outdone by the Scots, Salem carried the torch. Literally!

  6. This sounds like a great find and I’m especially pleased to hear it is written so those of us without any Scots blood have some hope of understanding it 😉 I haven’t read any historical crime fiction from this far back for some time either so I will be looking out for this one…

    • Yes, while I enjoy dialect when it’s done well, it can get a bit tiring – especially when it’s somebody else’s dialect! Oh good! I think you’ll enjoy these – plenty of human interest and an interesting period of history, not all about wars as so much historical fiction can be. 😀

  7. Interesting. Sounds very interesting. The question becomes: Where should I place it in the TBR pile? What is my life expectancy, and does that have any bearing on how I prioritize the pile?

    • Haha! I’m beginning to feel that way too! If they don’t invent immortality soon I’ve got no chance. This one is a nice light read though – strong plot but the kind of book that carries you along nicely. You could fit it in over a weekend… 😉

  8. Seems like an interesting time to live in! I wonder if they had bounty hunters for witches…it’s possible, you know.

    One would definitely need to keep a sword around. So, is Kirk the whole church system or just the Protestants?

    Now, that–finally!–is a good picture!

    • I don’t know – they did have witch-finders so I suppose they were sort of bounty hunters. Yes, I often think life these days is so boring in comparison to the past…

      One would! Now that’s a very interesting question! By this time (1626) the Kirk was definitely the Protestant one – the Presbyterians. And still is, though their official name is Church of Scotland. But the word kirk for church is much older than that so at an earlier period it must have been used for the Roman Catholic Church since that was the only one here back then. Intriguing – I hadn’t thought about that – see how interesting you are? Some people say Kirkintilloch means ‘church in the field’…

      Oh! You like Shona then, do you? Also most intriguing…

      • See, we would have been the witch-defenders. We’d have to hunt the witch finders. Sorta like the honey bees do to Japanese hornets, if that makes sense.

        You’re so smart! Cool. So, it one time, it was the Roman Catholic Church. Cool. I was wondering. For some reason, I was thinking of it as just Protestant. Is Kirkintilloch a city?

        I do! Don’t you? Why intriguing?

        • We need to get a time-machine so we can go back and do that! Think of all the adventures we could have – I’ve never even been on the battlefields of Troy… *sad face* Do honey bees do that?! That totally changes my opinion of them – little warriors!!

          Haha! I must admit I’m assuming that. But it’s only been used to mean the Protestant Church for over 400 years, so I think it’s fairly settled now. No, it’s a town, and only a little one…

          Because in two years that’s the first time you have expressed wholehearted admiration of a non-fictional woman… pity she doesn’t have a moustache though!

          • The battlefields of Troy were hot and dusty and somewhat smelly. But you might have liked it. You could’ve body slammed Ajax! The palace was cool. They do! Japanese Hornets send a scout to find a honey bee nest. 3-5 Jap hornets can clear a honey bee nest of 10-30K in a few hours. So, the honey bees (certain species) jump on the scout and boil him alive by smothering him.

            I think you have good reason to assume that. How cool. You’re a scholar. A little town. Sounds very nice. Is there a library?

            I just said it was a nice picture is all!

            • Hmm… you make it sound so appealing! Good for the honey bees! I might start up a fan club for them! Why do the hornets want their nests?

              Yes, quite a big one for such a small town in fact.

              OK, dadblameit!!

            • *shudders too* That seems brutal! Can’t they just go the shops and buy honey like everyone else? I think we should form an alliance with the honey bees and go to war with them…

              Oddly, I don’t! Got out of the habit years ago and get so many free books! I keep thinking about going along though…

            • It is very brutal, I say! *laughs* You would think they could be ladies and gentlemen, but I see not. They’re the worst sort of insect, I think. I’m not fighting them!!

              Even I’ll admit, there’s something very nice about a library. (Especially one in Scotland!)

            • Why not?! It is a fit task for a warrior to come to the aid of the defenceless!

              There is! I used to love spending Saturday mornings in the library and then taking my shiny books over to the park to read. Hmm… the sun must have shone more in my youth than it does now, I think…

            • Then we won’t wear the skirt and sandals outfit – we’ll wear suits of armour. That’ll foil the pesky little things!

              We’ve had about 5 days in total this “summer” – 28th Aug and my heating is on…

  9. This certainly sounds like it is impeccably done, and I will probably want to read it. My only hesitation is that this is far from my favorite historical period, with the Protestants fighting the Catholics for most of the 17th century, and both sides being intolerant to the point of fanaticism. It is hard to root for anyone in this Age, but of course there were still decent people out there. And we can still have a good mystery story set then.

    The hints of a couple of the key characters in some sense anticipating a more enlightened time, even if a long way off, is a nice touch. I wonder if you have read Barry Unsworth’s “Morality Play,” a superb novel set in the Middle Ages, which also has that sense of anticipating a more intellectually curious future? If not, it is a good one to add to your TBR list. 🙂

    I do know a fair amount of English history from this period, but really very little Scottish history, except insofar as it intertwines with the English. So this is a window into a world which I do not know that much about, but have had glimpses of as I read about King James, and Charles I. I do not imagine that either of us would want to live in 1626 Scotland (even apart from any of the obvious health issues), but it can be interesting to visit it, particularly with an author who appears to have done a fine job in researching and grasping the history and culture of that period.

    • Haha! In Scotland the Catholics and Protestants have never stopped fighting – we’ve just moved it off the battlefields into the football grounds and pubs! We don’t get bogged down with all these new-fangled things like racism and suchlike – why bother when sectarianism is so much fun! We’re not intolerant though – the fact that the police have to be out in force every July when the Orange Order march through Glasgow playing their anti-Catholic songs and celebrating the Battle of the Boyne (1690) is pure coincidence! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-33394198

      More seriously, it’s only one strand of the plot in this book and doesn’t overwhelm it at all. And yes, I liked that she nodded towards the Enlightenment, because of course it didn’t just appear from nowhere – it had been heading in that direction for some time. Helped by the fact that the Kirk, despite its faults at that time, believed in mass education, making Scotland an almost uniquely literate society for the period. This book touches on that too. I’m biased obviously, but I do think Scottish history is interesting between about 1500-1900. Before that, it’s all a bit messy, and after it we didn’t really have a separate history from England very much until recently.

      I haven’t read that book – I shall have a look, but I only read two or three books a week, you know… 😉

      • Well, we can’t have the “in” pile outpacing the “out,” at least not too substantially. 🙂 But “Morality Play” is a gem of a short mystery novel, and I would be almost certain that you would like it. So keep it in mind for downtime! I am impressed that you come upon so many books, but I guess at least some of that is the helpful presses which send you books to read and review. But even so, and with all the books that you have found and read on your own, there are some which you haven’t come upon, which is gratifying; and also gives me a chance to recommend a few to you, or to anyone else at this nice site who might want to take a small gamble. 🙂

        • Since I started blogging the in-pile has grown exponentially and shows no signs of going into reverse! I’m not at all complaining about getting recommendations – I love getting them. I just worry sometimes that people will think me rude for not getting round to reading them more quickly. This book, Alexander Seaton, was recommended to me in 2013…

          Yes, it’s trying to get a balance between new releases and older books that’s tricky. The blog has certainly pushed me more in the direction of new ones, but I’m trying to push back now. On the whole I get more pleasure out of classics and older more established stuff, though occasionally it’s fun to find a gem among the new releases.

    • Eclectic… or butterfly-brained… that’s me! 😉 Of course this is partly what’s at the root of my TBR problem – I want to read nearly every book I hear about…

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