An excellent beginning…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
A 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.
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.