The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Hide and Seek…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know turns up at his door seeking help. Scudder tells him that he’s discovered a conspiracy, one that, if it succeeds, will shake the world. It’s four weeks until he can reveal what he knows to the authorities, though, and he begs Hannay’s help to keep him hidden till then. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

Buchan described the book as a “shocker” and that’s basically what it is – what we’d now call an action thriller. Published in 1915, its first audience knew that whatever Hannay did, he didn’t succeed in preventing war, so that couldn’t be the point of the conspiracy or of the attempt to defeat it. Not unnaturally, the Germans don’t come out of it well, and unfortunately neither do the Jews (no Jews actually appear in it, but they’re still referred to in what I wish were outmoded anti-Semitic terms) nor the Southern Europeans – thankfully, it’s been a while since I heard the word “Dago” being used. This is always a problem with books of this era and sometimes I find it easier to overlook than others, I think based on whether the author simply uses the words or whether it feels as if he really means to be derogatory. I found Buchan borderline – it bothered me, but not so much I couldn’t look past it and enjoy the story.

The story itself is mostly a simple chase round the moorland in the south-west of Scotland, a place Buchan knew well in real life. This centre section between Scudder’s murder and the dramatic dénouement forms the bulk of the book, and is divided into chapters each of which forms a little story on its own. (In the introduction, there’s an extract from a letter from an early reader, a soldier in the trenches in France, thanking Buchan for this format since it allowed him to read and assimilate a chapter any time he got a moment of calm. “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”) Each mini-story involves someone Hannay meets during his travels – a road-mender, an innkeeper who would like to be an author, an aspiring political candidate, etc. Most of these are educated men, so that the bulk of the book is in standard English, but in the occasional working-class encounter Buchan gives us some excellent Scottish dialect.

Hitchcock’s version. Woman? What woman?? There is no woman!

The framing story of the conspiracy I found frankly incomprehensible for the most part, especially at the beginning when Scudder is clearly referring to all kinds of people and events that were probably familiar to a contemporary audience but mostly weren’t to me. It does become clearer at the end, although it also all becomes rather silly. However, I’m not a soldier in the trenches of WW1 nor even a worried mother waiting at home, so the thrilling aspects of trying to put a spanner in the works of the nasty Hun don’t resonate with me as they would have done at the time. In truth, I was finding it a bit tedious in the middle – there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax and I finally found out what the conspiracy was all about, I found myself nicely caught up in it (once I had switched off my over-heating credibility-monitor).

John Buchan

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually found the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition more interesting than the book! Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, gives the usual mix of abbreviated biography and literary context, and does so in clear and accessible English without any academic jargonese. What a fascinating life Buchan had! I had no idea! As well as writing a zillion books, he held all kinds of posts in his life, from Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to Member of Parliament, to Governor of Canada. Along the way, he also travelled extensively through South Africa, worked in intelligence and rose to be the Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information in 1918. (I know any Scottish readers, especially my siblings BigSister and ForeignFilmFan, are currently shaking their heads in disgust at my ignorance, but there it is. Neither of them can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone – we each have our different areas of expertise in this life.)

Overall, then, a good read if not a great one. And, as I suspected, it turns out I hadn’t read it before – I just knew it from the various adaptations, none of which have stuck very closely to the plot of the book. I’m now keen to re-watch the ancient Hitchcock version to see how it compares – memory tells me I enjoyed it considerably more…

Book 29 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas

Crème de la crème…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shona McMonagle works in an Edinburgh library, putting to good use the excellent education she received at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Woe betide anyone who requests a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though – That Book, as Shona calls it, which she believes so misrepresented all that the School stood for. Being a middle-aged woman of steady nerves and common sense, Shona takes it in her stride when the supposedly long-dead Miss Blaine shows up in the library one day. Miss Blaine is not dead, however – she is a time-traveller, and wants to recruit Shona to her elite team of people who travel through time on missions to sort out problems. Soon Shona finds herself transported back to Russia, sometime in the early 19th century, where she believes her task is to save young Lidia Ivanovna from marriage to an elderly general, and instead make sure she marries the super gorgeous and charming Sasha. But, despite her encyclopaedic knowledge of history, her multilingual abilities, and her skill in martial arts, sometimes Shona gets things wrong…

….“Yes,” I said, “every single Blainer is the crème de la crème by virtue of our outstanding education. But a depraved novelist claimed that this epithet applied only to a small coterie, the pupils of one particular teacher. And in a salacious misrepresentation of our beloved school and its irreproachable staff, she portrayed that teacher as a promiscuous adulteress who was prepared to prostitute her pupils. Pupils whose prepubescent sexual fantasises she described in sordid detail.”
….I had to clutch a nearby gilt salon chair for support, and to let my pulse slow down. I pride myself on my self-control, but this is a wound that will never heal.
….A lady sitting nearby leaned forward eagerly: “Please, Shona Fergusovna, may we have the name of this book and its author? In order that we may avoid it, of course.”

Well, this is a total hoot! Olga Wojtas has created a wonderful character in the astonishingly talented but oddly myopic Shona, a woman who can do just about anything but fails to see the blindingly obvious even when it’s right under her nose. The book cover mentions Wodehouse, and I see that comparison – Shona’s Russia has the same unreal quality as Wodehouse’s England, though not nearly as idyllic, and there’s no doubt the book had me laughing as much as Wodehouse does. But I’d be more tempted to compare it to Blackadder – based on ‘proper’ history grossly exaggerated for comic effect and with a central character who is somewhat apart from the others. The Russian aristocracy reminded me very much of Queenie and her courtiers, with their total disregard for their inferiors and their general level of silliness, while Shona’s chief serf Old Vatrushkin could easily have stood in for Baldrick. But Shona Fergusovna (as she calls herself in Russia) is much nicer than Blackadder – her ambition is to help everyone around her, even if they don’t particularly want to be helped.

….“If you’re not able to follow my instructions, then Lidia Ivanovna is not able to go to Madame Potapova’s party,” she said, yellow wool flowing from her needles. “Which is a pity, since I know she would enjoy wearing this fichu.”
….I sighed. “All right. I agree.”
….“You swear?”
….“Never. I believe it’s the sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The plot involves a whole host of ghastly deaths but it’s fine, because nobody cares and they mostly deserve it. One of the most fun aspects is that, unlike in most crime fiction where the point is for the reader to be way behind the fictional ‘tec and surprised by the solution, in this one, the reader sees what’s going on long, long before Shona catches on. Since we’re being told the story by Shona in first person (past tense), we are treated to her constant misinterpretations of the events around her. This could have been annoying if Shona had been less likeable, but it’s her desire to see the best in people and her kindness that lead her astray time and again, plus she’s very funny, sometimes even intentionally. She’s also a feisty feminist, who can’t help trying to spread political correctness everywhere she goes, much to the utter bafflement of everyone she meets, who seem to think their society is fine the way it is. It’s beautifully done – Wojtas manages to make fun of non-political correctness and political correctness at one and the same time.

….“We’ll start with a Dashing White Sergeant,” I told them…
As I played, the other musicians gamely following my lead, I called out clear, simple instructions for dancing the reel. “Forward, back, forward! Grab an arm! Twizzle! Hoppity-hop!”
….But despite the precision of my directions, it was a catastrophe. The dancers careered into one another, crashing into tables and chairs, smashing glasses, knocking over footmen. Then came an ominous commotion at the far end of the ballroom, and a shriek of “Saints in heaven! Save him!”

Olga Wojtas

Then there’s the Scottishness – such joy! So many Scottish writers abandon their Scottishness, understandably, so that their books can appeal to a wider audience. I sympathise, even though it annoys me. Wojtas instead makes a feature of it, and does so brilliantly. There’s no dialect at all that would make it hard for non-Scots to read, but lots of specifically Scottish references and figures of speech that had me howling. Any book that includes a reference to Jimmy Logan, a John Knox joke, a running gag on Jock Tamson and his bairns, and more than one side-swipe at the Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry will work for me! But it will also work for non-Scots, because Wojtas lightly provides just enough information to explain the references, so that the jokes still deliver.

Great fun! I hope Wojtas is working hard on the follow-up because I really don’t want to wait too long to meet up with Shona again…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Saraband.

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The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

God’s chosen few…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When George Colwan, Laird of Dalcastle, takes a much younger bride, the marriage is doomed from the beginning. The Laird is a fun-loving, hard-drinking, party animal – the bride, Rabina, holds extreme religious views of the Calvinist variety. She despises him; he is disappointed in her. Remarkably, despite this, they manage to produce two sons. The first, George, will grow up to be the apple of his father’s eye. The younger, Robert, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rabina’s close friend and spiritual adviser, Reverend Wringhim. The Laird rejects him and Robert is brought up as a ward of Reverend Wringhim, who indoctrinates him in the antinomian sect which believes that some people – the elect, or justified – are predestined to be saved by God, while everyone else will burn in hell. This is a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

It’s a historical novel: first published in 1824, it’s set more than a century earlier, between 1687 and 1715, roughly – or from the Glorious Revolution that saw the final downfall of the Stuarts, through the parliamentary Union between Scotland and England, and on towards the Jacobite rebellions. I’m reasonably familiar with this period of history on a fairly superficial level, but I was nevertheless glad to be reading a book with explanatory notes, and would suggest that’s essential for anyone who doesn’t know the background to the religious and political situation in Scotland at that time. Not that the book gets at all bogged down in any of these subjects, but the author assumes the reader’s familiarity with them, so doesn’t explain them as he goes along. My Oxford World’s Classics edition provides concise background information – enough to allow the reader to understand the references without feeling that s/he’s reading a history book – and a glossary and notes which explain any unfamiliar terms or allusions. The informative introduction, by Ian Duncan, Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, sets the book in its historical and literary context, and provides some biographical information on the author.

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

The story is told in two main parts, plus a short epilogue. The second part is the memoir and confession referred to in the title. The first is written by “the Editor” who, before presenting the reader with the memoir, tells what he has managed to learn of the actual events. This means we see the same story twice, allowing us to judge for ourself how much we can rely on the sinner’s account. The third part wraps the story up in the author’s present day and is unfortunately full of references to real people who were doubtless recognisable at the time but who have faded into obscurity since, so that some of the humour of this section is rather lost now.

The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma. On a wider level, he quietly mocks the way all religious sects tend to cherry-pick the bits of dogma that suit their world view best, while ignoring or “interpreting” the inconvenient bits of Scripture they don’t like.

From that moment, I conceived it decreed, not that I should be a minister of the gospel, but a champion of it, to cut off the enemies of the Lord from the face of the earth; and I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword, than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect, which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had forever rendered impracticable. The more I pondered on these things, the more I saw of the folly and inconsistency of ministers, in spending their lives, striving and remonstrating with sinners, in order to do that which they had it not in their power to do. Seeing that God had from all eternity decided the fate of every individual that was to be born of woman, how vain was it in man to endeavour to save those whom their Maker had, by an unchangeable decree, doomed to destruction.

On the day that Robert is told he is one of the elect, he meets a mysterious young man under whose spell he gradually falls. This man convinces Robert that he cannot sin whatever he does, and gradually leads him down a path that will lead to murder – more than one! The structure makes this particularly intriguing. Robert’s own memoir can be seen as the confession of a madman and his tempter could easily be seen as a delusion. But the Editor’s account suggests that the tempter is a real being, seen and witnessed by many others in physical form. To modern eyes, the temptation to see him as a product of mental illness is almost irresistible, but I suspect readers at the time would have been in no doubt about his Satanic origins.

It all sounds terribly dark and serious, I know, but the satirical element keeps it entertaining. There’s a lot of humour in it, particularly in the comparison of the Editor’s portrayal of Robert as a snivelling coward and Robert’s own vastly more heroic portrayal of himself. There’s also some great horror as Robert gets sucked further and further into his tempter’s schemes. And a whole lot of fairly wry insight into Scottish society. The vast majority is written in standard English, but there’s some brilliantly executed dialect in the dialogue, where Hogg manages to differentiate between the various regions of Scotland, and rather shows that the “common” man has considerably more common sense than his social “betters.”

Book 24 of 90

I read this one reluctantly because I felt I ought to given its status as a Scottish classic, and ended up much to my own surprise enjoying it thoroughly. Hogg takes all these theological and societal aspects, and turns them into an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation. Like so many others, it has suffered from the cultural domination exerted by England over the last few centuries, but it’s time these Scottish classics took their rightful place in the sun as equal partners in the great British literary tradition – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Goodness, Truth and Beauty…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in the years between the wars. As she repeatedly tells anyone who will listen, she is in her prime. The people she confides in most are a group of girls who were once in her class and whom she singled out as her girls – the Brodie set. Under cover of teaching them history, she instead tells them the story of her lost love, Hugh, who died in the First World War, and of the joys of being a woman in her prime. She would never marry, she declares, since she is too devoted to her girls. But that doesn’t mean she has to live the life of a nun…

The book gets off to an excellent start, introducing us first to the girls in the Brodie set. Spark plays around with time, taking us back to the girls’ first introduction to Miss Brodie as ten-year-olds, and then forwards to what feels like the present of the book, in the late ’30s when the girls are almost grown-up; and then forward again, often telling us the girls’ future as a way of shedding light on their personalities in the now. The time-shifting is cleverly done – the whole book sparkles with intelligence, in fact – giving layers of depth to what fundamentally is a rather slight little story of one of the many “surplus” women left single after the huge loss of young men in WW1.

Six years previously, Miss Brodie had led her new class into the garden for a history lesson underneath the big elm. On the way through the school corridors they passed the headmistress’s study. The door was wide open, the room was empty.
“Little girls,” said Miss Brodie, “come and observe this.”
They clustered round the open door while she pointed to a large poster pinned with drawing-pins on the opposite wall within the room. It depicted a man’s big face. Underneath were the words “Safety First.”
“This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,” said Miss Brodie. “Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan ‘Safety First.’ But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

Although the story may be slight, the characterisation of Miss Brodie is anything but – she is wonderfully realised as an unconventional woman battling against the rigid restrictions of prim and proper Edinburgh society, yearning for art and beauty in her life, longing for love, desperately needing the adulation both of men and of her girls. Her beauty and exotic behaviour bring her admiration from more than one man and lead her into the realms of scandal, endangering her necessary respectability and her career. But perhaps Miss Brodie’s real misfortune is that in the end she isn’t quite unconventional enough.

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

The writing is excellent, full of barbed humour but with dark undercurrents of repressed sexuality and warped morality. Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.

In fact, it was the religion of Calvin of which Sandy felt deprived, or rather a specified recognition of it. She desired this birthright; something definite to reject. It pervaded the place in proportion as it was unacknowledged. In some ways the most real and rooted people whom Sandy knew were Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters who made no evasions about their belief that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died. Later, when Sandy read John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.

It would have been easy for Spark to make Miss Brodie a heroine, leading her girls out of the darkness of repression into the light of self-expression, which is how Miss Brodie herself would justify how she exerts her influence over them. But instead Spark makes Miss Brodie fatally flawed – narcissistic and self-obsessed; blinded by romanticism into admiration of the Fascist regimes springing up around Europe; willing to use the girls as surrogates to lead the life she wishes she could have. But even in her tiny realm, she doesn’t wield absolute power – as the girls mature, they begin to make choices for themselves. The irony is that this is what Miss Brodie has encouraged them to do, but in the full and erroneous expectation that they would make the choices she wanted them to. If Miss Brodie is a heroine, she is a tragic one. The reader is told from the beginning that one of her students will one day betray her.

The wonderful Muriel Spark in her prime…

And when that betrayal comes, the reader is left to decide whether it was deserved. Spark creates a wonderful murkiness around actions and motives that meant this reader could sympathise with both Miss Brodie and her betrayer, yet condemn them both at the same time. No-one is fully likeable, no-one’s motives are completely pure. Instead these women are entirely human, glorious in their complicatedness, selfish in their desires, trapped in their conventions, and ultimately, for some at least, doomed by their weaknesses.

A book that fully deserves its reputation as a Scottish classic – Miss Brodie is one of those literary characters who have become part of the national psyche. But though it says much about the Edinburgh of the period in which it’s set, its focus on the messy humanity of the characters prevents it from being restricted to that small sphere – these are people who could be met with anywhere. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work – if it comes close to this in quality, I’m in for a treat. And meantime, if you haven’t already read this, then I recommend it wholeheartedly to you.

Book 23 of 90

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I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

Back to the island…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane are the owners of Ranish Tweed, a successful cloth manufacturer. They are in Paris for a trade show, when Niamh receives an anonymous email accusing her beloved husband Ruairidh of having an affair. She finds herself torn. Part of her can’t believe it, but when she sees Ruairidh with the woman, Irina, she follows them. Suddenly to her shock and horror the car they are in explodes, killing both occupants instantly. The police quickly determine that this is no act of random terrorism, but premeditated murder. Niamh returns to her home on the Isle of Lewis, grief-stricken and lost. Who could have had a serious enough grudge against Ruairidh to commit this awful crime? The answer must lie somewhere in the past…

Beginning of Lengthy and Completely Unnecessary Digression on May’s Work
 (Readers are respectfully advised that they may want to skip ahead… 😉 )

I have been a fan of Peter May’s writing for more decades than I care to remember. But for all that I love his books in general and think he’s one of the best thriller writers of his time, I have found in recent years that when he writes about his home country of Scotland and particularly the islands of the Hebrides, his writing takes on a beauty and depth that transcends any of his other work. His language is wonderfully descriptive, filled with colour and texture, so that the reader sees the harsh loveliness of the landscape, feels the never-ending rain and wind, knows the towns and harbours and the people who live and work in them.

As May has reached his middle years, I’ve found that some of his books have taken on a reflective tone, a kind of nostalgic retelling of what feels very much like fictionalised autobiography. This was perhaps most evident in Runaway, which May based around an incident in his own early life. But I felt it strongly again in this one, though I have no way of knowing whether I’m correct in that assumption. When he does this, it seems to me it has two results – the books are deeper, more emotional, with the feel of contemporary or literary fiction, and contain his truest characterisations; and, conversely, the crime story is weaker, less important and feels rather tacked on. I can understand why some readers might find that a little frustrating but, since what I love most about him is his superb descriptive writing and his ability to create a rich sense of place, the relative downplaying of the crime aspect doesn’t bother me too much. Part of me wishes he’d go the whole hog sometime and write a William Boyd-style literary novel.

I’m sure partly my reaction is because when May is writing about his own country, his own people and his own past, he’s also writing about mine. There’s a profound Scottishness in these Lewis books. Though his style is very different to William McIlvanney’s, I find the same kind of clear-sighted truthfulness in them – he doesn’t gloss over the darker aspects of our society but writes with a warm affection for both place and people. There is a tendency amongst some writers to show life in Scotland as either tartan and twee, or all drugs, drunks and foul-mouthed violence – both aspects that exist on the edges, for sure. But May instead shows what life is like for the majority of us – a mix of old and new, the modern emerging, more slowly, perhaps, in these remote island communities, from the restrictions and harsh traditions of the past.

End of Lengthy Digression

Old Loom – New Tweed. Weaver Kenny Maclennan from Breaseclete treading the Hattersley loom at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis

Anyway, enough of these musings! To the book! It’s written mostly in the third person, past tense, with some sections in the past told in Niamh’s first-person voice, also past tense. (Regulars will know how happy I am not to be forced to read present tense, even if May does do it better than most.) The bulk of the book is telling us the long history of Niamh’s and Ruairidh’s relationship, from their early childhood through to the present day. We know that some incident happened that has led their families to be at odds with each other, but we don’t find out what till late on. Once married, they set up Ranish Tweed – a variation on the real Harris Tweed which is woven exclusively on the island. Again, May’s research and descriptive skill come into play here, never info-dumping, but showing how this old traditional industry has had new life breathed into it in recent years through clever marketing, becoming a niche couture item for the rich. Through this strand we also get a look at the fashion industry in general and how designers and manufacturers are crucial to each other’s success or failure.

Meantime, the crime is being investigated by Sylvie Braque of the French police, and we learn a little of her life as she struggles to balance single parenthood with the demands of the job. When she comes to Lewis as part of her investigation, she is assisted by local Sergeant George Gunn, who is becoming something of a regular feature in May’s various Lewis novels, making them feel loosely tied together and reminding us that each of the stories form one part that together make up the whole of this community. I’m a big fan of Sergeant Gunn, so was delighted that he got a rather larger role than usual in this one. For the most part, the story is a relatively slow meander through Niamh’s life, but it builds up to a typical May thriller ending which, though I’d guessed part of the solution, still managed to shock me.

As a crime novel, I might only have rated this as 4 stars – there’s no doubt it loses focus on the crime for a long section in the middle. But frankly, I’ll happily ramble round Lewis for as long as May is willing to be my guide, so I was in no hurry to get to the solution. If you haven’t already guessed, highly recommended!

Peter May

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

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The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale by Robert Louis Stevenson

Brotherly love?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the lost Stuart crown, the Durie family of Durrisdeer must decide where their loyalties lie. If they make the wrong choice, they could lose everything, but pick the winning side and their future is secure. The old Laird has two sons. Jamie, the eldest, known as the Master of Ballantrae, is attractive and popular but evil, while Henry, the younger, is dull but good. The family decides one son should join Charlie’s rebellion while the other should declare loyalty to the Hanoverian King George II, a kind of hedging of bets in which many noble families would indulge (so says Stevenson, and I have no reason to doubt him). By rights, as the younger, Henry should have joined the rising, but the Master thinks this is the more exciting option so claims it for himself. When the rising fails, word reaches Durrisdeer that Jamie died in battle. Henry gains the estate but is vilified by the townspeople for, as rumour has it, betraying his more popular brother, while his father and Alison, the woman he is to marry, make no secret that they loved Jamie best and mourn his loss extravagantly. So things are bad for Henry… but they’re going to get worse when news arrives that Jamie didn’t die after all…

The Master and McKellar’s first meeting

I freely admit I thought this was going to be a story about the Jacobite rebellion, but it isn’t. The enmity between the brothers had begun before long before the rising, and although it is used to set up the conditions for further strife between them, in fact it’s a minor strand in the book. This is actually a story of two opposing characters and their lifelong struggle against each other. It’s told by Ephraim Mackellar, steward to the estate of Durrisdeer and loyal supporter of Henry, who was present for many of the main events and has gathered the rest of the story from witnesses and participants. It will involve duels, smugglers and plots, love and hate, loyalty and betrayal; it will take us aboard a pirate ship and all the way across the Atlantic to the little town of New York in the far away American colonies. And it will end with a terrifying journey through the wilds of (Native American) Indian country on a quest for treasure!

It would be possible to read this, perhaps, as some kind of allegory for the Scotland of the time, divided in loyalty between the deposed Stuarts and the reigning Hanoverians, but I don’t think that can be taken too far since neither brother seems actively to care who wins, nor to be loyal to anything or anybody very much, so long as they come out of it with their lands and position intact. The things that divide them are personal, not political. There’s also a kind of variant on the Jekyll and Hyde theme going on – the two brothers opposite in everything, one tediously decent, the other excitingly bad.

Errol Flynn swashbuckling as the Master…

However as we get to know the brothers over the long years covered by the story, we see that the contrasts between them are not as glaring as they first appear. The same flaws and weaknesses run through all members of this doomed family (not a spoiler – we’re told they’re doomed from the very beginning) – they just show themselves in different ways. Poor Mackellar – while his loyalty to Henry never fails him, as time goes on he becomes a solitary and unregarded voice of reason in the middle of their feud, and grows to see that, to coin a phrase, there are faults on both sides.

In the midst of our evil season sprang up a hurricane of wind; so that all supposed she must go down. […] At first I was terrified beyond motion, and almost beyond thought, my mind appearing to be frozen. Presently there stole in on me a ray of comfort. If the Nonesuch foundered, she would carry down with her into the deeps of that unsounded sea the creature whom we all so feared and hated; there would be no more Master of Ballantrae, the fish would sport among his ribs; his schemes all brought to nothing, his harmless enemies at peace. At first, I have said, it was but a ray of comfort; but it had soon grown to be broad sunshine. The thought of the man’s death, of his deletion from this world, which he embittered for so many, took possession of my mind. I hugged it, I found it sweet in my belly. I conceived the ship’s last plunge, the sea bursting upon all sides into the cabin, the brief mortal conflict there, all by myself, in that closed place; I numbered the horrors, I had almost said with satisfaction; I felt I could bear all and more, if the Nonesuch carried down with her, overtook by the same ruin, the enemy of my poor master’s house.

Stevenson always writes adventure brilliantly and there are some great action scenes in the book, many of them with more than an edge of creepiness and horror. But there’s much more to this one than simply that. The characterisation is the important thing, of the brothers certainly as the central figures in this drama, but equally of the other players – the old Laird, Alison and not least, Mackellar himself. Stevenson does an excellent job of showing how the various experiences they undergo change each of them – some becoming stronger, better people, others giving way to weakness and cruelty. I admit none of them are particularly likeable, (though despite myself I developed a soft spot for poor, pompous, self-righteous Mackellar – he had a lot to contend with, poor man), but they’re so well drawn that I was fully invested in their fates anyway.

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by Sargent

Each of the settings is done brilliantly, from the life of a middle-ranking Laird of this period to the growing settlements in the New World. The pirate episode is especially good, as is the later voyage to America – Stevenson always seems to excel once he gets his characters out on the ocean wave. There are dark deeds a-plenty and not a little gore, but there’s also occasional humour to give a bit of light amidst the bleakness. There’s a lot of foreshadowing of doom, and a couple of times Mackellar tells us in advance what’s going to happen, but nevertheless the story held my interest throughout and the ending still managed to surprise and shock me. Though the adventure side means it could easily be enjoyed by older children, it seems to me this has rather more adult themes than Treasure Island or Kidnapped, in the sense that the good and evil debate is muddier and more complex, and rooted in the development of the characters rather than in the events – again, the comparison to Jekyll and Hyde would be closer. Oh, and there’s very little Scottish dialect in it, so perfectly accessible to non-Scots readers. Another excellent one from Stevenson’s hugely talented pen, fully deserving of its status as a classic, and highly recommended!

Book 16 of 90

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His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The quality of madness…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes.

The novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half is taken up with Roderick’s own account of events leading up to the crime, an account he is writing while in jail, at the urging of Mr Sinclair, his defence attorney. There’s then a shorter section told from the viewpoint of J. Bruce Thomson, an authority in the new discipline of criminal anthropology. He has been brought in by Mr Sinclair to determine whether Roderick could be considered insane under the legal definition of that word then in force. J. Bruce Thomson was a real person, as the notes at the end of the book tell us, and Burnet has apparently used his actual writings on the subject to inform this section of the book. Finally, there’s an account of the trial, presented as a kind of compilation of various newspaper reports.

The quality of the writing is excellent and the structure works surprisingly well. I’ll get my major criticism out of the way first: I found it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old crofter living in a tiny, isolated and dirt-poor community in the Scottish highlands at this period could possibly be as literate and eloquent as Roderick is in his own written account. Apart from just the excellent grammar and extensive vocabulary, he writes in standard English throughout, which would absolutely not have been how he spoke. Burnet is clearly aware of this problem, so shoves in a bit about how Roderick was a kind of prodigy at school who could have gone on to further education if circumstances had allowed, but I’m afraid this wasn’t enough to convince. My minor, related criticism is that this also means the book makes no attempt to reproduce Scottish dialect or speech patterns – a bonus, I imagine, for the non-Scots reader but a disappointment for this Scot.

However, the storytelling is first-rate and Burnet creates a completely convincing picture of crofting life at this period – a life of hard work and poverty, where the crofters’ living was entirely dependant on the whim of the local laird. He shows the various powers who held sway over the crofters – the factor who was the laird’s main representative, the constable, elected by the crofters to enforce a kind of discipline among them, and the minister of the harsh and unforgiving Scottish church. And he shows how easily these people could browbeat, bully and abuse those under their power, who had no rights to assert and no power to protest. The section supposedly written by J. Bruce Thomson gives a great insight into contemporary thinking on insanity, particularly as regards the effects of heredity and of in-breeding in these tiny communities.

The trial also feels authentic, especially the various extracts from newspapers which include word sketches of how the witnesses and the accused appeared to those in the courtroom. The reader has slightly more information than the jury, because we have had the opportunity to read Roderick’s account. But when the jury retires to consider its verdict, the jurors and the reader are left debating the same question of criminality versus insanity, and Burnet has carefully balanced the picture so that it’s not an easy question to answer.

I found it an absorbing read with a great marriage of interesting storyline and well presented research. As a character study, Roderick is fascinating – indeed, his whole family are. There are all kinds of hints of things that are never fully revealed or clarified, all of which add to the uncertainty of Roderick’s motivation; and the structure allows us to see him both as he chooses to present himself and from the viewpoints of the many other people who come into contact with him. I felt Burnet got just about a perfect balance between letting us feel we knew Roderick and reminding us that we can never fully understand what’s going on in someone else’s head – lots of lovely ambiguity.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

The book was shortlisted for the Booker and, to be honest, I can’t quite see why. It’s very well written and interesting and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see it winning crime or historical fiction awards, but I don’t feel it’s particularly ‘literary’ or brings anything hugely original to the table. This is not to criticise the book – it’s more a criticism of the Booker, which seems to have lost its way fairly dramatically over the last few years. Had Burnet taken that extra leap of courage to use at least some Scots rather than go for the easy (and more marketable) option of standard English throughout, then perhaps it would have taken it up that notch that would be needed to raise it from excellent to exceptional.

But excellent it is, and it would be unfair to rate it otherwise because it doesn’t quite live up to the unrealistic expectations the Booker shortlisting has created. As a historical crime novel, then – highly recommended.

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Treasure Island: An Audible Original Drama

Yo! Ho! Ho!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

An Audible Original full cast dramatisation starring Oliver Teale, Daniel Mays, Catherine Tate and Philip Glenister. Dramatised by Marty Ross from the original by Robert Louis Stevenson.

When I re-read Treasure Island a few years ago, I fell in love with it all over again. It’s undoubtedly one of the best adventure stories ever written, full of characters who’ve become such a part of our national psyche they almost feel historical rather than fictional – Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Ben Gunn, Jim Hawkins (arr, Jim, lad!), et al. Even younger people who may not have read the book will recognise these characters even if they don’t recognise the names, since they’ve been used and adapted in nearly every pirate book or movie ever since – the wooden-legged pirate with a parrot on his shoulder (Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight! Squa-a-a-wk!), the young boy caught up in piratical adventures on the high seas, the sailor marooned – maroooned, I tell ‘ee! – on a desert island, the villainous baddie bringing messages of doom, the treasure map where X marks the spot…

So needless to say, when I was offered the chance to listen to Audible’s new dramatisation, I grabbed it with both hands, dug out a bottle of rum, and set sail for lands unknown, me hearties! And that was even before I read the cast list and realised they’d gone all out to get some of the absolute best. Gotta say, every single member of the cast, stars and supporting, throw themselves into this with glee – you can literally hear how much fun they’re having bringing these fabulously over-the-top characters to life.

My memory for plot details is totally rubbish, but as far as I could tell the adaptation sticks very faithfully to the original. There’s a little more humour in it than I remembered so perhaps a few scenes have been altered for that purpose. At first, when the action is in the Admiral Benbow Inn where young Jim-lad lives with his mother (played excellently by Catherine Tate), I thought they had maybe lightened it up a bit to make it suitable for younger children. But indeed not! Some parts of it are very dark indeed, and the cast don’t skimp on bringing out the scary bits. And somehow hearing it rather than reading it made those parts even more effective – genuinely thrilling! Black Dog in particular scared the bejabers out of me, and I think I fall safely into the category of older child.

Although it’s a dramatisation, it’s not abridged. It has a running time of 6 hours and 26 minutes which is almost identical to the timing on straight narrations. Jim Hawkins (Gerran Howell) acts his role in the action sequences, but also provides a narration for the linking bits. Rather unfairly, he doesn’t get listed as one of the stars, but he gives an excellent performance too. Oliver Teale is utterly brilliant as Long John Silver, and Daniel Mays’ Ben Gunn is so much fun – marooned! Maroooooned, I tell ‘ee!! Philip Glenister is perfect as Doctor Livesey. The only thing that annoyed me is that Audible never provides a written cast list for these productions, and the cast list on the recording is always at the end, so I find I’m constantly trying to work out who’s playing whom, especially when they’re all having so much fun with accents. In this case, even when they did list the cast, they didn’t specify which role each actor had played. I think several of them play more than one role, but there are also loads of other actors playing some of the smaller roles. I’m almost certain it’s Daniel Mays giving a tour-de-force performance as Capt’n Flint the parrot, who starts out as part of the humour and gets progressively scarier as the thing goes on.

There’s some appropriately sea-shanty style incidental music and the sound effects are great – waves crashing, ships creaking, cutlasses clashing, big guns booming (jumped a foot in the air when that happened – and I was sitting down at the time. Tuppence was not pleased!). And I warn you now, not only will you find yourself joining in whenever they burst into a full-cast rendition of Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest, but you’ll still be singing it two weeks later – or maybe that’s just me…

Can you tell I loved this? I enjoyed every single minute of it and instead of parcelling it out into half-hour instalments as I usually do with audiobooks, I ended up listening to the bulk of it in two massive chunks over one weekend. It will be one I listen to often again – perfect for dark winter nights or long car journeys or just whenever I’m accosted by the need to hear Ben Gunn tell me again that he’s marooned – marooooooooned, I tell ‘ee! Dark and scary with shafts of humour, tons of action, thrilling adventures, great script, fabulous acting – Yo! Ho! HO!

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR.

Audible UK Link
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Tuesday Terror! Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Beware the Mummy!!

As autumn nights grow darker, the fretful porpentine has poked his little nose out of his hibernation box and demanded new stories to get him through the winter months. Or old stories – like this one from the master storyteller Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Who better to kick off a new season of horror…?

Tuesday Terror 2Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

…when we think how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.

Three students live in a corner turret in Old College in Oxford. Our hero is Abercrombie Smith, a medical student studying hard for his final exams, and a man of both robust physical attributes and a steady, unimaginative mind. On the floor below is Edward Bellingham, a strange and rather repulsive man with a pasty complexion and rolls of loose skin as if he had lost a lot of weight at some time. He is a student of Eastern languages and has spent much time amongst the people of Egypt and the arab lands. Below him is William Monkhouse Lee – a friend of Bellingham, who is engaged to be married to Lee’s sister. They are connected by an ancient staircase…

Life has flowed like water down this winding stair, and, waterlike, has left these smooth-worn grooves behind it. From the long-gowned, pedantic scholars of Plantagenet days down to the young bloods of a later age, how full and strong has been that tide of young, English life. And what was left now of all those hopes, those strivings, those fiery energies, save here and there in some old-world churchyard a few scratches upon a stone, and perchance a handful of dust in a mouldering coffin? Yet here were the silent stair and the grey, old wall, with bend and saltire and many another heraldic device still to be read upon its surface, like grotesque shadows thrown back from the days that had passed.

Abercrombie Smith is warned by his friend James Hastie to steer clear of Bellingham. Hastie says Bellingham’s character is as unpleasant as his appearance, and gives an example to back up his claim…

“Well, you know the towpath along by the river. There were several fellows going along it, Bellingham in front, when they came on an old market-woman coming the other way. It had been raining–you know what those fields are like when it has rained – and the path ran between the river and a great puddle that was nearly as broad. Well, what does this swine do but keep the path, and push the old girl into the mud, where she and her marketings came to terrible grief. It was a blackguard thing to do…”

Despite this tale, Abercrombie Smith suspects that Hastie is in love with Bellingham’s fiancée and that it’s the green-eyed monster talking, so dismisses his warnings.

However, later that night, after Hastie has left, Abercrombie Smith hears a stange hissing noise from the room below. Then suddenly…

…there broke out in the silence of the night a hoarse cry, a positive scream – the call of a man who is moved and shaken beyond all control.

Lee bursts into his room asking for assistance – Bellingham has apparently been taken ill. Abercrombie Smith rushes down to find Bellingham in a dead faint. His room is more like a museum – filled with curiosities from the East and strange relics from the tombs of Egypt, and a stuffed crocodile suspended from the ceiling. But there’s one thing in particular that sends chills down Abercrombie Smith’s spine…

…a mummy case, which had been conveyed from the wall, as was evident from the gap there, and laid across the front of the table. The mummy itself, a horrid, black, withered thing, like a charred head on a gnarled bush, was lying half out of the case, with its claw-like hand and bony forearm resting upon the table. Propped up against the sarcophagus was an old, yellow scroll of papyrus, and in front of it, in a wooden armchair, sat the owner of the room, his head thrown back, his widely opened eyes directed in a horrified stare to the crocodile above him, and his blue, thick lips puffing loudly with every expiration.

Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932)

Soon Abercrombie Smith will be locked in battle against an evil beyond his wildest imaginings…

* * * * * * *

Did you know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the first person to create a story about a mummy being brought back to life for evil purposes? No, neither did I. Isn’t that fascinating? So every time you watch a mummy movie, it was inspired either directly or indirectly by this story.

Sometimes the problem with these old originals is that each generation of descendants adds something to them until eventually the originals can seem a bit bland. I must say I think this story stands up very well for about 95% of it, and then has a rather anti-climactic ending in comparison to what we’d expect now. The old college and winding staircase give it all a nicely gothic feel and of course Conan Doyle’s writing is perfectly suited to that kind of style. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and a particularly scary scene when our hero is pursued through the night by the murderous mummy.

I do like my horror stories to include the old battle between good and evil thing, and this has that to perfection. So it’s not just interesting for its place in the history of horror, it’s also still a very enjoyable tale of terror in its own right. The porpentine and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of Nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?

Who indeed?

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link. It’s quite a long short story – maybe about an hour’s worth.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

* * * * * * *

NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall Rating is for the story’s quality.

* * * * * * *

The Malice of Waves (Cal McGill 3) by Mark Douglas-Home

The Island of Adventure…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Max Wheeler goes off to spend the night camping on uninhabited Priest’s Island, a storm-tossed island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. His rich father had bought the island as a playground for him a couple of years earlier, much to the annoyance of the townspeople on the neighbouring island of Eilean Dubh, who resented this intrusion into their traditional way of life. Priest’s Island had belonged for generations to a local family who had used it for grazing their sheep. When Max fails to return and no trace of him is found, Ewan, the local lad who would have inherited the island had it not been sold to the Wheelers, quickly becomes the chief suspect. But no evidence has ever been found to allow him to be charged. Five years on, Max’s father has hired Cal McGill, an oceanographer and expert in tides and waves, in a last ditch effort to trace Max’s body. But Cal’s appearance stirs old fears and resentments amongst the townspeople and soon danger stalks more than one inhabitant…

This is the third in the Cal McGill series but the first I’ve read. It worked perfectly well as a standalone and I didn’t feel I was missing anything from not having read the earlier books. The mystery element of the plot is very good – I didn’t get close to the solution but, when it was revealed, felt that it was well within the bounds of credibility. I did think the plotting lacked a little by failing to provide possible alternative explanations though – there weren’t too many red herrings sending me off in the wrong direction. This meant that for quite a long time in the middle I felt the investigation element was rather underdeveloped – neither Cal nor his police officer sidekick Helen Jamieson seemed to be doing very much other than treading water (pun intended) while hoping someone might let something slip. In fact, Cal’s specialism played very little part in the story – always a problem when an amateur detective is given such a specific profession.

However, the depiction of the isolated small town on the edge of nowhere is done very well although, oddly, it lacks any feeling of Scottishness – no dialect, no Scottish traditions, not even Scottish cakes in the tea-shop at the heart of the community. It could as easily have been a small island community set anywhere in the world. But the way they band together when one of their number is threatened feels very realistic, as does the way they all know everything about each other and make allowances for one another’s quirks. The weather plays a large part in the story, and Douglas-Home gives excellent descriptions of the wildness of storms and how quickly these island communities can be cut off from the mainland.

There’s a sub-plot involving an egg-collector – a hobby that’s now illegal in order to protect threatened bird species. I found all the stuff about this added a real level of interest to the story – it feels well-researched and authentic, and sent me off to google images of some of the eggs and nests mentioned. Since some of these collectors go to ridiculous lengths in pursuit of rare eggs, it also allows for some hair-raisingly dangerous exploits and extra suspense (that’s also a pun, but if you want to know why, you’ll have to read the book…).

Mark Douglas-Home
Picture by: Alan Hillyer/Writer Pictures

The writing is very good – third person past tense – hurrah! In this episode we don’t get to know too much about Cal’s life – there’s a little history about his relationship with his father but not much else. However we learn more about Helen Jamieson. She’s a police officer, refreshingly competent and angst-free apart from her apparently unrequited longings for Cal, but she doesn’t allow these to get in the way of having a good professional relationship with him. I actually found myself thinking of her as the central character rather than Cal, so I hope she’s a recurring character in the series.

Overall, I enjoyed this one a lot, and will happily look out for more in this series. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin UK.

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The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Grimly Glaswegian…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

William Watt wants to clear his name. His wife, sister-in-law and daughter have been brutally murdered in their home, and Watt is the chief suspect. But convicted rapist and burglar, Peter Manuel, recently released from prison, claims he knows who did the murders and can lead Watt to the murder weapon, a gun which has passed from hand to hand through the criminal underworld of Glasgow. So one December evening in 1957 the two men meet and spend a long night together drinking and trying to come to some kind of deal – a night during which the truth of the killings will be revealed.

This book is based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. A notorious rapist and brutal murderer, Manuel was a bogeyman in the Glasgow of my childhood, though he died before I was born. Adults spoke of him in hushed tones or sometimes threatened disobedient children that Peter Manuel would get them if they didn’t behave. In the old tradition, his story was turned into a rhyme that little girls sang while skipping ropes…

Mary had a little cat
She used to call it Daniel
Then she found it killed six mice
And now she calls it Manuel.

Despite this, I knew almost nothing about the actual crimes of which Manuel was convicted, so came to the book with no preconceptions, and made a heroic effort to avoid googling in advance. And although the blurb already seems to suggest what the outcome of the Watt case might be, it’s not nearly as clear cut as that – Mina does a wonderful job of obscuring and blurring the truth, so that I spent the whole time not quite sure how major parts of it would play out, and immediately had to rush off on finishing to find out how closely the story she tells had stuck to the facts. The answer is that she largely has, but has taken a few fictional liberties. These are just enough to mean the suspense element will work just as much for people who know the case as those who don’t, I think.

Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla. Soon a Clean Air Act will outlaw coal-burning in town. Five square miles of the Victorian city will be ruled unfit for human habitation and torn down, redeveloped in concrete and glass and steel…Later, the black bedraggled survivors of this architectural cull will be sandblasted, their hard skin scoured off to reveal glittering yellow and burgundy sandstone. The exposed stone is porous though, it sucks in rain and splits when it freezes in the winter.

But this story is before all of that. This story happens in the old boom city, crowded, wild west, chaotic. This city is commerce unfettered. It centres around the docks and the river, and it is all function. It dresses like the Irishwomen: head to toe in black, hair covered, eyes down.

Peter Manuel

But the story is only a part of what makes this wonderful book so special. Despite being in my pet-hate present tense, the writing is fantastic. The portrayal of Glasgow feels amazingly authentic – the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty; the buildings blackened by the soot of the industrial revolution before the big clean up that happened later in the century; the lifestyles of respectable people and criminals alike; the gangsters great and small; the perpetual almost tribal sectarianism between Protestant and Catholic that has marred so much of the city’s history; the relationships between married couples; the pubs as a male preserve; the edge of danger that comes from the ever present threat of violence – everything! It reminded me strongly of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books – less poetic perhaps, or at least less affectionately so. McIlvanney doesn’t beautify the city or hide its darkness, but nevertheless his books read like a love letter to it and its people – Mina’s depiction is harsher, colder perhaps, but still balanced and nuanced.

And sometimes the book is gut-wrenching in its emotional truth and power. The man giving evidence about the murder of his daughter when we are made privy to his thoughts behind the spoken evidence. The sudden use of war metaphors when a man who had served in WW2 comes across a scene of bloody brutality. It drew tears from me more than once, for the fierceness of its truthfulness and the power of the prose as much as for the tragedies in the story. And there are other passages where a different, gentler kind of truthfulness emerges – the mother torn between her love for her child and what she sees as her duty to God; the children left to run free in the streets in a way that would be almost unthinkable now.

They search the car. In the glovebox they find a tin of travel sweets. The lid lifts off with a white puff of magician’s smoke. Inside, translucent pink boiled sweeties are sunk into a nest of icing sugar. These are posh sweets.

Reverently, the boys take one each. They savour the flavour and this moment, when they are in a car, eating sweets with friends. In the future, when they are grown, they will all own cars because ordinary people will own cars in the future but this seems fantastical to them now. In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.

Denise Mina

The book has been longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize and, though I’ve only read a few of the other contenders, I can’t imagine how any book could be a more suitable winner. Scottish to its bones, it nevertheless speaks to our universal humanity. Crime fiction where the quality of the writing and insight into a particular time and place would allow it to sit just as easily on the literary fiction shelf. Not only do I think this is one of the books of the year but I suspect and hope it will become a classic that continues to be read for many decades to come, like Capote’s In Cold Blood or McIlvanney’s own Laidlaw. I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it…

It was Cleo’s great review that tempted me to read this wonderful book – thanks again, Cleo! I owe you one!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Book 5 of 20

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

A Scottish classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the tale of three sisters, daughters of the minister in a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. Our narrator is the youngest of the three, Lisbet, who over the course of the couple of years of the book’s story grows from a girl only half comprehending her elder sisters’ early forays into the world of romantic love, into a young woman on whom the two older girls come to depend for support. The date is unspecified, I believe, but the book was published in 1933 and it reads as if the story is set somewhere in the decade or two before that, at a time when young girls had more freedom than Austen’s heroines, for example, but were still confined by lack of opportunity and girded round by social restrictions, breaches of which would inevitably lead to scandal and ruin.

I mention Austen in my little introduction because the comparison was running in my head throughout most of my reading of the book. Like Austen, this is fundamentally a book about young women seeking the men they will eventually marry but, also like her, it’s much more than that. It portrays the society of a particular place at a moment in time and does so brilliantly, showing the subtle social stratifications that limit the lives and suitable marriage prospects of these moderately privileged girls still further. Since this is Scotland, the book also shows the stranglehold of Protestant intolerance that has blighted the country since Knox, and the anti-Catholic discrimination that goes hand-in-hand with that.

The dominie could read from a snail on a blade of grass or the flight of a bird every whim of the weather. He would tell us it was not going to thunder because he had noticed a trout jumping in the loch or that we must expect rain for he had seen a craikie heron ‘take to the hill’. There were other things he told us of as he helped us over dykes or went in front to guide us through boggy places: how death and the eddying fairies came from the pale west, and the white chancy south brought summer and long life, giants and ill-luck strode from the black north, and only good could come out of the sacred east.

The writing is superb and, to continue the Austen comparison a little further, the characterisation of these young girls is beautifully done. None of them is perfect – each has her flaws and idiosyncrasies. The two eldest, Julia and Emmy, are a little like Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility – Julia’s strong feelings masked by her outward calm, and with the intellect and strength of character to overcome the slings and arrows of her fortune; Emmy driven by emotion, unwilling, perhaps unable, to accept society’s restrictions. Lisbet is clear-sighted about her sisters, and about herself. Although she is young during the events of the book, it is written as if by her older self looking back, giving her narration a feeling of more maturity and insight than her younger self may have had at the time. Lisbet is also profoundly affected by her physical surroundings, describing the landscape and weather in lush passages of great beauty, full of colour and a sense almost of mysticism.

A pale green light poured down from the wintry sky, as though this earth were lit by chance rays from some other world. Grey sheep silently ate split turnips in the brown fields. The snow had melted in the low lands, leaving everything sad dun shades, and only streaked the mountains, where it lay like the skeletons of huge, prehistoric animals. The shouldering outline of the mountains cut against the horizon, their detail of burn, crag and ravine lost in the immensity of their shadowed bulk. It was as though, in those transient windless seconds between dawn and daylight, the world had resolved itself again into the contours and substances that composed it before man trod on its earth and drank in its air.

But despite all my comparisons, there are elements that make the book very different in tone from Austen. Although there are plenty of moments where we see the touching love and loyalty among the sisters, there is little of the wit and humour displayed in most of Austen’s works. This book is darker, with a tone of pathos and impending tragedy created by the subtlest hints of foreshadowing. I don’t want to tell any of the story because its gradual unfolding is one of the book’s great strengths. But there isn’t that feeling of certainty that all misunderstandings and obstacles will be cleared away in time for a happy ending for all of these girls. And, dare I say, the eventual outcomes have something more of the ring of truth about them as a result.

‘There’s plenty of time for my breakfast and your wedding,’ he informed her, ‘as I’m sure Drake would tell you. You know, our whole lives consist of this kind of thing – seeing things out of proportion. Think of the furore and fever we worked ourselves into last year over something that now leaves us quite cold.’

‘I hope it will take more than a year for my marriage to leave me cold,’ Julia rejoined.

‘You never know,’ he replied lugubriously, ‘for after all love is merely seeing the loved one hopelessly out of proportion. Then, you’ll find, you’ll both waken up one day to the fact that the other is quite ordinary and is peopling the world in hundreds. That’s why I never married,’ he added complacently, ‘ I always knew I would be the first to waken up.’

The vast majority of the book is written in standard English, with just some Scottish dialect in the dialogue of one or two characters. However there is a sprinkling of Scottish words throughout, some of which have faded into complete obscurity now, but many of which are still used by older Scots. The meanings of most of them are clear by their context, but I was a little disappointed that my Canongate Classics edition has neither a glossary nor footnotes – not that they are essential, but to add to the interest for non-Scots and younger Scots alike. I would also warn forcibly not to read the introduction by Edwin Morgan before reading the book – he gives away the entire plot (and frankly adds little depth to the understanding of the book).

I was not, however, disappointed in any way by the book itself. In my opinion, it’s easily of the quality of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s much better known Sunset Song and, in fact, I think I enjoyed it even more. I am sorry it seems to have sunk into relative obscurity. The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic, and deserves a much wider readership than it has.

The carriage moved forward. We turned the bend in the road where we used to stand to see if any one were coming. I heard the immeasurable murmur of the loch, like a far-away wave that never breaks upon the shore, and the cry of a curlew. All the world’s sorrow, all the world’s pain, and none of its regret, lay throbbing in that cry.

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Book 11 of 90

Rather be the Devil (Rebus 21) by Ian Rankin

Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

While Rebus is having dinner with his long-term girlfriend, forensic pathologist Deborah Quant, in the Caledonian Hotel, he tells her of a murder that took place there years ago, when a famous rock star and his entourage were staying in the hotel – a woman who, it appeared, was probably murdered by her lover, except that the lover had an alibi. The murder was never solved and, as he tells the story, Rebus’s interest in it revives. Time for a little amateur sleuthing! Meantime, gangster Darryl Christie has been beaten up and Siobhan is on the case. The obvious suspect is Big Ger Cafferty, the older gangster whom Darryl has pushed aside, but Cafferty hints to Rebus that there’s a Russian connection. (No, fear not, Comrade Trump isn’t in it!) Malcolm Fox has been moved to the Specialist Crime Division in Gartcosh. They are quietly looking into some of Darryl’s business interests and reckon the investigation into his beating will be a good opportunity to nose around his affairs, so Malcolm is sent back through to Edinburgh to liaise with Siobhan. And so the scene is set for another full-cast outing, all the detectives and gangsters gathered together one more time.

Ian Rankin

Anyone who’s been reading my reviews for a while will know that Rebus is up there at the top of my list of favourite detectives, and Ian Rankin can really do no wrong in my eyes. As always, the plotting is great, with the various strands crossing and interconnecting. The old murder story is a traditional whodunit, where alibis and motives are key, while the gangster story allows for plenty of action and a good, believable thriller ending. There’s lots of room for the regulars to interact with each other, which is always one of the major joys of the books – tension between Siobhan and Malcolm because she’s jealous of his move to Gartcosh, concern over Rebus’s health as he undergoes some tests, and Rebus and Big Ger continuing their roles as the elder statesmen of policing and crime, running rings around the young’uns as usual.

However, in truth, I couldn’t help but notice that there are a good deal of similarities to the last book. The rivalry among Darryl, Big Ger and their Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, has been rumbling through a few books now, and shows no signs of coming to a conclusion. In retirement, it’s harder to create reasons for Rebus to be involved, and the excuse of Big Ger only being willing to deal with him is becoming a little worn. I hate to say it because I love the old man so much, but I think it’s time to let Rebus go and allow Siobhan and Malcolm to take over as the lead characters. Either that, or Rankin should break his own rule and take us back in time to revisit Rebus as a younger man, when he was still on the force. That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy this one – I did, thoroughly, and I’m sure other Rebus fans will too. But this and the last one have felt like encores, given as a treat to those who’ve watched the whole show and want a little bit more. And I think it would be better if Rebus left the stage while the audience is still applauding.

James Macpherson

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this, narrated by James Macpherson whom some of you will remember as Chief Inspector Michael Jardine in the long-running STV series, Taggart. I’d listened to him narrate Rebus before, in the short story collection The Beat Goes On, so knew he’d be good. But actually he’s even better in this one – the length allows him to create different personalities for all the characters, and his range of Scottish accents and voices is fabulous. From posh Morningside gents to wee Glesca nyaffs, he can do them all brilliantly! He has a real understanding of the recurring characters, so his interpretation never jars. And his timing for the humour is perfect – he often made me laugh out loud. I heartily recommend his readings to any Rebus fans out there – I can’t imagine a better narrator for them, and fully intend to back track and listen to his readings of some of the older books.

For anyone coming new to the series, I’d definitely recommend starting much further back – this one depends to a large extent on familiarity with all the relationships amongst the regulars. But for existing Rebus fans, another thoroughly enjoyable book. Rankin writing and Macpherson narrating are a dream team – pure pleasure! Highly recommended.

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The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

Seeds of evil…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Brothers Neil and Calum work as foresters in Ardmore in the Scottish highlands. Calum is a simple-minded but happy soul, his twisted, hunched back making him clumsy on the ground, but once he is climbing in his beloved trees he is agile and sure-footed. Neil, the older brother, has devoted his life to looking after Calum, resenting every slight and insult that’s been directed at him far more than Calum himself. Now they have been sent to the estate of Lady Runcie-Campbell to gather cones from the trees in her woods, prior to the woods being chopped down as part of the war effort.

But Lady Runcie-Campbell’s gamekeeper, Duror, has taken a strong dislike to them, especially to Calum. Partly this is because Calum’s soft heart has led him to free animals caught in Duror’s traps, but mainly it’s an irrational horror of the stunted body and mind of the man, mirroring Duror’s own stunted life, which has turned out so differently from what he expected. Duror’s young wife whom he loved was struck by an unspecified illness three years after they wed, leaving her bedridden and obese. Now, twenty years on, she is needy and whiny, mainly because Duror makes it so plain that he can’t bear to spend time in her company. Duror has buried deep within himself his resentment at the unfairness of his life, as he sees it, but something about the little hunchback Calum has triggered his pent-up anger, turning him into a malevolent, bullying monster.

Hidden among the spruces at the edge of the ride, near enough to catch the smell of larch off the cones and to be struck by some of those thrown, stood Duror the gamekeeper, in an icy sweat of hatred, with his gun aimed all the time at the feeble-minded hunchback grovelling over the rabbit. To pull the trigger, requiring far less force than to break a rabbit’s neck, and then to hear simultaneously the clean report of the gun and the last obscene squeal of the killed dwarf would have been for him, he thought, release too, from the noose of disgust and despair drawn, these past few days, so much tighter.

The Second World War is happening in the background, so that this small community is missing young men. Lady Runcie-Campbell is only in charge because her husband is away in the army, and obviously, being a woman, she’s not very good at man management. (Well, it was written in 1955.) She’d prefer not to know about anything that might disrupt her perfect lifestyle or prick her conscience, like the atrocious conditions the cone-gatherers are expected to live in, so leaves everything she can up to Duror. She is always striving to become a better Christian and wants her children to grow up with true Christian values. On the other hand, she has been tasked by her husband to make sure their son grows up to be a true aristocrat, confident in his superior breeding and properly haughty to the hoi-polloi. Lady Runcie-Campbell’s own upbringing means she sees no problem in reconciling these things, but her son shows an irritating capacity to feel sympathy for the people she bullies and demeans.

The still is from a BBC Bitesize production for use in schools as a teaching aid.

As a Scottish classic, I tried hard to love this book, but failed, though I certainly didn’t hate it either. It has an air of impending doom from the first pages, a tragedy so well signalled that the end is never really in doubt. This can work, so long as the journey is interesting enough. Here, while the writing is skilled and often very powerful, the characters never came to life for me, each feeling like a representative of an aspect of humanity that Jenkins wanted to show, rather than a truly rounded individual. It comments a little on the changing social order of the time, when the lower classes were no longer prepared to accept without criticism the inequality in society, nor to obey without question the orders of their social superiors. But it does it in a way that I found rather obvious, without nuance. There’s a similar lack of subtlety in the direct comparison it draws between Duror’s irrational hatred of the hunchbacked Calum and the atrocities carried out by the Nazis. I feel the author should sometimes leave the reader to do some of the work.

He had read that the Germans were putting idiots and cripples to death in gas chambers. Outwardly, as everybody expected, he condemned such barbarity; inwardly, thinking of idiocy and crippledness not as abstractions but as embodied in the crouchbacked cone-gatherer, he had profoundly approved.

Robin Jenkins

Elsewhere, religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains. There’s an odd episode in the middle when the brothers visit the nearby town, where everyone is preternaturally nice to them, in too stark contrast to the evil that surrounds them in the woods. It reminded me a little in tone of Of Mice and Men – the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn to bathos if an author isn’t careful. Jenkins narrowly avoids bathos, but in the process he also loses the emotionalism, the light and shade, that might have lifted this book above being a simple allegory of good and evil. My lack of belief in the characters as people meant that the long-anticipated tragic ending left me disappointingly unmoved, despite my admiration for the prose.

Book 7 of 90

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Murder of a Lady: A Scottish Mystery by Anthony Wynne

A locked-room mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

murder-of-a-ladyAmateur detective, Dr Eustace Hailey, is visiting a friend in Mid-Argyll in the Scottish Highlands, when a murder is committed in nearby Duchlan Castle, home of the laird, Hamish Gregor. The victim is the laird’s sister, Mary, a woman to all outward appearances of a saintly nature, the last person one would expect to be brutally slain. Her body is found in her bedroom, with the door and windows locked from the inside, and no obvious way for the murderer to have got in or out. The local Procurator Fiscal has heard of Dr Hailey’s reputation and begs him to come and look at the scene, fearing it may be some time before a police detective arrives in this remote spot. It’s not long before Dr Hailey discovers that Mary Gregor had another, darker side to her nature, harsh and judgemental, manipulating and controlling the people around her to get her own way in all things, no matter the cost to others…

These British Library re-issues of vintage crime novels have been a bit hit or miss for me, so I’m delighted to say this one is most definitely a hit! I was simultaneously attracted to and apprehensive about it because of its Scottish setting – so often at that period Scottish characters were annoyingly stereotyped as either figures of fun or drunken, belligerent half-savages by the rather snobbish English writers of the time. However I needn’t have worried – it turns out Wynne was Scottish himself, and the picture he paints of this Highland society gives a real feeling of authenticity, even though it does, as with most Golden Age crime, concern itself primarily with the aristocratic and professional classes. There is an interesting, short introduction from Martin Edwards, giving a little background information on the author, and setting the book into its place in the history of crime fiction.

Although the focus is largely on the locked-room puzzle of how the crime could have been done, there’s some pretty good characterisation along the way. Not so much of the detective, Dr Hailey – I believe this was quite far along in the series so Wynne may have presumed his readers already knew about him. But the victim’s personality is key to the motive, and, though she’s dead before we meet her, we get an increasingly clear picture of her in all her malevolence through the eyes of the various people who knew her. Her brother Hamish, the laird, is another fine creation – his snobbery and sense of self-importance, his pride in his family and lineage, his weakness to stand up to his sister, his insistence on the maintenance of tradition. I particularly liked the way Wynne portrayed the women, showing them as subordinate within this society, but strong within themselves; victims sometimes, but not hysterical ones; and intelligent, worthy partners for the men they loved.

Anthony Wynne
Anthony Wynne

Of course, there is more than one murder, and I have to admit that the second one took me totally by surprise and actually made me gasp a little. There’s no real horror aspect in the book, but it nevertheless builds a great atmosphere of rather creepy tension, aided by the superstitions of the Highland folk. It does veer into melodrama at points, but that works well with the rather gothic setting of the old house filled with secrets from times gone by. I wouldn’t call it fair-play – I think it would be pretty impossible to work out the who, why and how of the crimes. And yes, it does stretch credibility when all is revealed – the method, at least, though the motivations of all the characters were credible enough to carry me over any other weaknesses.

I enjoyed this one very much – another author the British Library has managed to add to my list!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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Black Widow (Jack Parlabane 7) by Chris Brookmyre

Winner of the 2016 McIlvanney Prize…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

black-widowWhen Peter Elphinstone drives off the road into a river one cold, dark night, it appears to have been a tragic accident. But Peter’s sister isn’t convinced. She knows Peter was stressed and unhappy in his new marriage and fears there’s more to his death than it looks at first sight. So she asks journalist Jack Parlabane to investigate. The uniformed police officer who attended the scene of the crash also isn’t wholly convinced, but CID seem happy to let the incident be filed under accident. So Ali and her new partner Rodriguez carry out a little investigation of their own. Soon all the evidence seems to be pointing towards Peter’s wife, Diana…

This is my first introduction to Chris Brookmyre and I was hugely impressed by the quality of the writing. The book is told partly in third person from Parlabane’s point of view, partly in first person from Diana, and partly from a neutral third person voice covering any aspect not directly involving either of these two characters.

Diana is a surgeon who once kept an anonymous blog where she complained about the sexism shown to women within medicine and the NHS in general, and told some fairly damning stories about colleagues. Her cover was blown when she got hacked, and a huge public scandal ensued that led to Diana being forced to leave her high-flying job down South and head for the small and rather remote town of Inverness in the Scottish highlands where, despite her reputation, the management were keen to have such a skilled surgeon on their books. Alone, forty, and with her body-clock ticking loudly, it’s here that she meets Peter, one of the hospital’s IT guys, and after a whirlwhind romance, they marry. The question is: what lead to Peter’s death only six months later? Diana tells us the story of their relationship, while Parlabane digs into her background.

Inverness - Gateway to the Highlands
Inverness – Gateway to the Highlands

The NHS setting is brought convincingly to life, and I say that as someone who has spent most of her working life in it. All the rivalries, the arrogance of the top medical professionals, the strict pecking order, the cliques and groups, the loyalties and ultimately the professionalism are all very well done. Brookmyre shows the sexism as an institutional thing – that it is hard for women doctors and surgeons to balance such a demanding career with a fulfilling family life – rather than overt sexism from male colleagues, and again I found this very true to life.

The characterisation is very good, especially of the main characters, Diana and Peter, both of whom Brookmyre manages to keep ambiguous even while we learn a lot about them. The plotting also starts out great, though in truth I felt the outcome was pretty well signalled by about halfway through, meaning the twists towards the end came as no big surprise. There are also a couple of pretty big deviations from reality, which I’m not sure would be noticed by non-Scots in one instance, and non-Scottish NHS employees with a good understanding of the rules around NHS IT confidentiality in the other. Unfortunately, being both those things, they leapt out at me and left me wondering if it had been a failure of research or whether Brookmyre had simply decided to twist things to fit his plot. A degree of fictional licence is always permissible, of course, so I did my best to overlook them, but they did kinda spoil the credibility for me, especially since both were important as to how the plot worked out.

Chris Brookmyre
Chris Brookmyre

Despite those criticisms, I found the book very readable and more-ish, doing that just one more chapter thing till the wee sma’ hours. Parlabane is a likeable character. He’s clearly had some ethical problems in the past, and still isn’t averse to breaking the odd law or two, but in this one at least his motives are good and he doesn’t go too far into maverick territory. His divorce has just become final, and he’s finding himself approaching middle-age, single and with his career going through a rocky patch. Brookmyre handles all of this well, including plenty of humour in the book to prevent any feeling of angsty wallowing. The tragic thing is that I now feel I have to add all the previous Parlabane books to my list and investigate some of his other stuff too… oh, my poor TBR!

PS This was the book that won the 2016 McIlvanney Prize, for which regular readers may remember I was involved in the longlisting process. A worthy winner in my opinion, though my own preference is still for Douglas Skelton’s Open Wounds.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Out of Bounds (Karen Pirie 4) by Val McDermid

Murder in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

out of boundsWhen some drunken lads steal a Land Rover and then crash it, a blood sample is taken from the driver and routinely checked for DNA matches. The results show a familial match to the perpetrator of a horrific unsolved rape and murder from 1996, so DCI Karen Pirie and her cold case team, consisting of herself and one DC, reopen the case. However it becomes more complicated when they discover the car crash victim was adopted, so they will have to seek the Court’s permission to access his birth records. Meantime, a young man called Gabriel Abbott is found dead from a gunshot wound in a park, a death that the investigating officer is eager to call suicide and close the case. Karen’s not so sure, and when she discovers that Gabriel’s mother was herself murdered over 20 years earlier, she finds herself drawn to try to solve the older case and see if it impacted in any way on Gabriel’s death.

I really like this new series of McDermid’s. She has always been one of my favourite crime writers, but I tired eventually of the Tony Hill series, so I’m delighted she’s gone off in a new direction. These books are strictly police procedurals, told in a straightforward linear fashion with no flashy gimmicks or unbelievable twists. I’ve only read one other in the series, The Skeleton Road, which had a plot-line that took us back to the Serbo-Croatian war and was as much about the horrors of that as about the crime under investigation. While I enjoyed it very much, in truth I prefer to get my history from history books, so preferred this one which is more traditional in style – a crime or crimes, suspects, motives, clues, red herrings, etc., but all set firmly in the present and with a totally authentic feel to the investigation.

Karen Pirie is an excellent character, perhaps my favourite of all the various lead characters McDermid has created over the years. She is refreshingly non-maverick, working within the rules and procedures of contemporary policing, and getting on with her colleagues on the whole. Somewhat tediously, she has the usual useless boss who’s always trying to do her down, but she gets round him with a combination of wit and manipulation, instead of the rather unbelievable outright defiance and belligerence that so many fictional detectives seem able to get away with. She thinks her young assistant Jason is “thick”, but is nevertheless a good, supportive boss to him, and during the course of this book, as he matures into the role, she finds she’s beginning to appreciate him more. And again unlike many of the loner detectives of today, she has a few good friends and a normal social life outside work.

In this book she is still grieving after the events at the end of the last one. (I’m leaving that deliberately vague to avoid spoilers – the books work perfectly as standalones and don’t have much of a continuing story arc, but like most series they’re probably best read in order.) But her grief is shown believably, without wallowing. It recurs from time to time but lessens as time goes on, and Karen handles it without taking to drink or beating people up or all the other things our dysfunctional detectives usually do.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

There’s also a strand in the book about some of the Syrian refugees who have come to Scotland fleeing from the horrors in their own country. McDermid handles this very well, showing them not as potential terrorists, rapists, murderers or religious fanatics, but as normal people who have seen and experienced terrible things, but survived, and who now want to find a way to build new lives for themselves and their families in a safer place.

The plotting is great, with enough complexity to keep the reader guessing but without ever straying far over the credibility line. Although there are two separate cases on the go, McDermid juggles them well, never letting one be forgotten at the expense of the other. And personally, I’m delighted to see her set a series in her native Scotland. She doesn’t shine a light on the political zeitgeist in quite the way Rankin often does, but she creates a clear and authentic picture of contemporary Scotland, particularly with regards to policing and justice systems.

All-in-all, an excellent read which I highly recommend. I’m hoping this series will have a long run.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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Dirt Road by James Kelman

Road trip to the basement…

😦

dirt roadA young boy and his father, grieving for the recent loss of the boy’s mother and the longer ago loss of his sister, go on a trip to visit relatives in America. While there, Murdo meets up with a family of musicians, who invite him to play his accordion (annoyingly spelled accordeon throughout in my advance reading copy, whether intentionally or accidentally I know not) at a gig in a couple of weeks time. Murdo assumes his father won’t want him to go. In fact, his father wants nothing more than to sit around the relatives’ house and read, while Murdo lies on his bed in the basement, bored out of his head, listening to one of the two CDs he has. At the point where I finally threw in the towel (33%) they had only left the house once, and that was to go to the mall for a couple of hours.

The writing is undoubtedly excellent. Although written in the third person, the reader is entirely inside Murdo’s head, listening to his thoughts. It’s not stream of consciousness in the sense of long complicated sentences. Quite the reverse in fact – the sentences tend to be short and plain. But we do see Murdo’s thoughts drift and circle. On a technical level, it’s beautifully sustained and the voice and emotions ring true. My only criticism of the style is that, for some obscure reason, Kelman, having decided not to “do” Scottish dialect, still substitutes the word “ye” for “you” all the way through. This drove me mad. Either do a Scottish accent or don’t!

James Kelman
James Kelman

But the real issue is that there is no discernible plot or story. I realise that’s all the rage these days in some quarters of the lit-fic world and that many readers enjoy lengthy studies of emotions we have surely all felt, but it bores me rigid. The book is purely character study and stylish prose, and that’s not enough to make a novel. The blurb describes it as a road trip, but to be a road trip surely involves going out of the house occasionally. While the journey to America is moderately interesting, once they reach their destination it becomes entirely static. There is no sense of place, other than that I could describe Murdo’s basement and the shopping mall in detail. But happily for you, I won’t.

The only questions are, will Murdo go to the gig or not and will he and his father learn to communicate with each other? After what felt like hours of nothing happening, I found I couldn’t care less, and certainly not enough to stay with him in his basement for another couple of hundred pages, listening to him go round in endless circles about what it’s like to be a bored, isolated and grieving teenager. So I abandoned it and feel much better now, ye know. Perhaps it becomes more interesting later – perhaps there even is the promised road trip. But I’m afraid I’d had enough. This trend for books which do nothing but wallow in descriptions of fictional grief is not for me. The quality of the prose makes my 1-star harsh, but if I find a book so tedious that I can’t face reading on, then it seems ridiculous to rate it any higher.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate.

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The Rat Stone Serenade by Denzil Meyrick

Too much of a good thing…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the rat stone serenadeA hundred years ago, blacksmith Nathaniel Stuart was driven off his property in Blaan, a village on the southernmost tip of the remote Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Of tinker stock, Stuart cursed the landowner Archie Shannon, declaring that every fifty years calamity will befall his family and their descendants until the end of time. Fifty years later, young Archie Shannon hid from his mother in the woods behind their home for a lark – and was never seen again. Now, in the present day, the Shannon family is returning to their ancestral home in Blaan for the annual general meeting of the hugely successful international company they now own. But things take a sinister turn when the bones of a young child are discovered on the Rat Stone, an ancient site surrounded by much superstition and fear…

There is so much to like about this book that I really wish I was recommending it more highly. It’s very well written, and the recurring characters of DCI Daley and his small team are done well – each with a distinct personality, each flawed, but all likeable as individuals and working well together as a team. The remoteness of this part of the world is increased when an unusually severe snowstorm cuts off the roads to the mainland and causes power cuts throughout the area. Meyrick creates an excellent atmosphere of isolation and menace, with some nicely spine-tingling supernatural undertones. With no likelihood of reinforcements getting through any time soon, it’s up to Daley and his colleagues not just to investigate the old bones but to try to stop the sudden crime wave that is sweeping through the village.

And therein lies the problem. Too much, too much! The body count is completely ridiculous! For a large proportion of the early part of the book, each chapter introduces us to someone who is then gruesomely killed. It seems like there’s a million strands each resulting in gory death for someone and for a long time, too long, the connection between all these events is entirely unclear. And with so many deaths happening so quickly, these characters are no more than names, so that when they’re referred to later in the book, I was having real difficulties remembering who they were or how and where they died.

The book is like an Irish stew – everything has been thrown in. One detective is an alcoholic trying to lay off the booze, while a couple of the others are having an affair with each other. There are dead businessmen, human sacrifices, dodgy business dealings, vicars with secrets, ex-nuns, tinkers’ curses and about three people all having visions, either supernatural, caused by drink or due to brain damage. Corpses with their skin flayed, corpses on bonfires, corpses on sacrificial stones. Every now and again new people had to arrive by helicopter or boat just to replenish the stock of people to bump off. One felt an investigation wasn’t really necessary – leave it a couple of days and only the bad guy would be left alive!

Denzil Meyrick
Denzil Meyrick

One of the detectives is given what I think is supposed to be a Glasgow accent, though it feels more like an anglicised speaker’s idea of what a generic Scottish dialect sounded like circa 1950 – a bit too Sunday Post (which will mean nothing to non-Scots – sorry! Twee, perhaps, is the closest comparison). However, kudos to the author for at least trying to keep the book feeling Scottish in tone, and I must say my ‘ear’ did get tuned in to the dialect after a while, and it began to sound more authentic. (And one of the characters lives in Kirkintilloch – my very own little hometown!)

It picks up towards the end and, while the supernatural stuff is left hanging for the most part, the rest of it is explained, even if the credibility is stretched way past breaking point. Despite all the ridiculous stuff, it’s still very readable because of the overall quality of the writing. Although I really feel this one goes so far over the top it becomes farcical, I would be willing to read another in this series. I was reminded of the artist Agatha Troy, in Ngaio Marsh’s books, who never knew when one of her pictures was finished and needed her lover Roderick Alleyn to tell her when to stop painting. I really hope Meyrick can find an editor who will perform the same function for him (the stopping bit, not the lover-ing bit!) and tell him when enough is enough. Loads of potential in this series – I hope in future books to see it fulfilled.

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Open Wounds (Davie McCall 4) by Douglas Skelton

Genuine Tartan Noir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

open woundsDavie McCall is a gangster with a moral code – he doesn’t hurt women, children or ‘civilians’. But that doesn’t stop him from hurting other people – badly, when they’ve done something that crosses one of his personal lines. He’s always felt in control of his violence though, until recently, when he suddenly found he was enjoying it. Now he wants out of the ‘Life’, but he’s scared – not of what his boss might do to him, but scared that he won’t be able to change, won’t be able to leave the desire for violence behind him. Meantime, he’s still working as a heavy for Rab McClymont, who’s not just his boss but an old friend. So when Rab asks him to lean on a man, Fergus O’Neill, at first Davie’s fine with that. O’Neill was convicted a few years back of a horrific burglary that involved rape, but is now out pending appeal and is publicly accusing Rab of having fitted him up for the crime. When Davie begins to believe that O’Neill may have been innocent, he still can’t believe that Rab would have been involved in a rape, even indirectly. So he begins to investigate…

This is a great book that I’m strongly recommending you don’t read. At least not straight away. It’s actually the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall quartet, and I very much wish I’d read them in order, partly because there are lots of references to the previous books in this one which meant I was a bit lost at the beginning, and partly because having now read this one, the first three will have been a little spoiled for me since I know how the series resolves. That won’t stop me reading them though! The first in the series is Blood City.

The book is set in Glasgow gangster culture and has a totally authentic feel to it. These are low level gangsters, running dodgy businesses, small-time drug dealing, protection rackets and loan-sharking. As well as giving a great sense of place, using mainly real locations, Skelton has a complete grip on Glaswegian “patter”, the humour that covers the harshness of life on the edges of society. The dialogue isn’t really written in dialect so non-Scots would have no difficulties with it, but the speech patterns and “voices” are spot on.

Normally I would have a serious problem with being able to empathise with a man who uses violence as a tool, but Skelton provides a ton of moral ambiguity, both about Davie’s victims and regarding his background, that makes him understandable. And his own internal struggle to hold onto some kind of moral code lets the reader be on his side, willing him to win out against the demons that haunt him. I couldn’t help but think of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – Davie might be how Laidlaw would have turned out if he’d been born into the life of the gangster, and with a few better breaks in life Davie could have turned into Laidlaw. They share that sense of clear-sighted vision about the society they move in, the same philosophical acceptance that there’s only so much any one man can do to change things and the same core of morality that makes them swim against the tide even when they feel themselves being sucked under.

Douglas-Skelton
Douglas Skelton

Though I struggled at first from not having read the earlier books, by about a third of the way through I had gathered enough about the background for that aspect to stop being an issue, and from that stage in this worked fine as a standalone. The plotting is great, with several strands weaving in and out of each other. Davie is a kind of mentor to a younger thug, trying hard to stop him from losing his humanity. He’s increasingly at odds with his boss Rab, whose growing suspicions of Davie’s motives threaten their old friendship. There’s a corrupt police officer on the take, and this strand is handle particularly well – Skelton shows him believably as the exception rather the rule within the police, disliked as much by his fellow officers as by the lowlifes he bullies and uses. The characterisation throughout is exceptional, with every character ringing true – no clichés or stereotypes here. And in the end all the strands come together to an ending which is credible and satisfying without being falsely uplifting.

This is genuine Tartan Noir, grounded in the real recognisable Glasgow of today – a rare treasure amidst some of the overblown melodramatic dross which is so often wrongly acclaimed as giving an authentic picture of life here. I’m delighted to have stumbled across Douglas Skelton and he is now part of that select band of Scottish crime writers to whose future books I will look forward with keen anticipation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Luath Press.

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