It’s the turn of the “country spy” story again. In Clare Carson’s Orkney Twilight, the first in the Sam Coyle trilogy, our heroine is a teenager in 1984, and has volunteered to go to the Orkneys with her father, an undercover cop, and her friend Tom, who plans on becoming a journalist. It turns into an awkward holiday: her father Jim has brought his gun, and is intent on dead-letter drops at scenic Orkney sites. Someone is watching their holiday cottage. Sam is worried she’s given away too much of her father’s past to Tom, who can’t help himself from ferreting into the past. She is torn between wanting to know more, yet wanting to protect her father, but at the same time mistrusting everything he has told her.
This reminds me of other unreliable fathers, such as John Le Carre’s own father, fictionalised in A Perfect Spy, or the grandfather of River Cartwright in Mick Herron’s Spook Street. It turns out that the author’s own father was an undercover policeman in the 1970s, and far from being a cunning plot device, this has an element of autobiography. Carson captures the confusion of the teen years, the suspicion of the adult world while wanting to join it, but has also overlaid it with an emotional flatness that made it hard to feel genuine sympathy for Sam. The international element seemed tangential rather than intrinsic, but the next volume may change that. (The third volume in the series, The Dark Isle, has just been published.)
There were plenty of knowing references to the significance of the south bank of the Thames at Vauxhall – which would become the home of MI6 some years after this novel was set – and to authentic south London settings as well as the Orkneys. The author resists the trap of name-checking 1980s brands and music to set the scene, and I found plenty to admire in the writing. However, I failed to warm to the characters and this may mean I leave the series here.
This week, it’s a book that I’ve been putting off reading since Christmas because I was afraid it would be too gloomy – His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, so I knew it would be well-written, but in the short dark days of January and February, I needed something lighter. Set in rural Aberdeenshire in the 19th century, it tells the story of a remote crofting community and how one young man was driven to murder. The tale is told partly in the young man’s own words, written while awaiting trial, and partly in those of a lawyer who is looking into the case.
This is bleak reading, and does much to explain why people left the countryside in the first place. Abuses of power in a small place have a disproportionate effect on the poverty-stricken inhabitants, and grievances fester for decades. The murder, when it comes, is an inevitable outcome of a generation’s worth of oppression, and it is a tribute to Burnet’s skill that the reader retains sympathy for the murderer throughout. The brutality of his neighbours is revenged, but there is no satisfaction in the end, only a sense of lives wasted by poverty. An excellent book, but one that holds no nostalgia for the Scotland of days past.
“Murder of a Lady: a Scottish Mystery” by Anthony Wynne was published in 1931, but in many ways reads as if it were written fifty years earlier. It feels more of a contemporary piece with Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” than with Agatha Christie or other Golden Age writers. Miss Gregor, the Lady of the title, is said to have preferred candles to oil lamps, having never got the hang of modern technology, and I was left wondering if the author preferred some of the language and phrasing of his Victorian forebears, even though he has adopted the pace of his contemporaries.
The story is set in Argyllshire, on the shores of Loch Fyne. The laird of Duchlan finds his sister dead at her bedside, in a locked room. He calls the police, but Dr Hailey, staying with a friend locally, has also had some experience in these matters, and is drawn in to the mysterious events at Duchlan Castle. The old lady is far from being the saint she was trying to be, instead taking a malicious interest in the lives of others, in particular that of her nephew and his wife Oonagh, and their young son.
There are plenty of twists in the tale, and Wynne is not afraid to let the body count rack up. There are decidedly modern parallels with the current crop of psychological thrillers, in that the psychology of the victim is investigated thoroughly, for, as Dr Hailey believes, if you fully understand the victim, you fully understand the murderer. There are plenty of digs against the Lowland Scots and the perception of the Highlanders as being prone to belief in the supernatural. And why is there a fish scale at the scene of the crime?
This is an admirable and skilful work of fiction. I hadn’t expected how much enjoyment I would extract from it, and provided one is feeling up to the Victorian turns of phrase, an excellent wet-weather read.
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.