This week I’ve been reading another hang-over from 2016, “The Malice of Waves”, by Mark Douglas-Home. Whereas Peter May’s “The Coffin Road” was set on the real island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, this is set on a fictional island just south of Harris, Eilean Dubh. There’s a whole sub-genre of crime fiction set on Scottish islands, which seems to form a kind of half-way house between Scandinavian and UK crime fiction – i.e. remote (to the point of being exotic), with terrible weather, and a recognisably dour detective staring gloomily at the landscape/ corpse/ alienated relative but without the high body count of more urban areas.
That’s not to detract from “The Malice of Waves”, which features perhaps the first crime-solving oceanographer (though not the first in a series of Highly Specialised Scientists (HSS) who turn to detection – it started with pathologists (Cornwell) , then forensic anthropologists (Reichs), but has spread out to include archaeologists (Griffiths) and even forensic geologists (Andrews). Cal McGill, aka the “sea detective”, has been called in to track the likely path of the body of a teenager who went missing five years ago, but whose father continues to blame the local community. He bought a smaller island off the coast of Eilean Dubh, and felt sure that a resentful community was covering up the identity of the murderer.
Douglas-Home is excellent in creating a sense of claustrophobia and clannishness among the local inhabitants, whilst acknowledging the strengths of a small community. The issue of Scottish land rights is never far away, against a backdrop of the Highland Clearances, and the fear of landowners with the ability to turn out entire villages. The ending had both the simplicity and inevitability of a Greek tragedy, and augurs well for the future of this series.