Day 1247: The Return of John McNab

Cover for The Return of John McNabAndrew Greig seems to like to base his novels on Scottish texts, legends, or history, and The Return of John McNab is no exception. This novel is a reworking of a classic novel by John Buchan, John McNab.

I am not familiar with this novel, but I got the idea right away. In the original, three men announce they are going to go poaching, that is, catch a salmon, shoot a grouse, and shoot a stag on three different estates and deliver the game to the grounds of the estate. (I know this isn’t the proper Brit terminology. I’m using “estate” in its American meaning of a large property owned by a wealthy person.) This wager is meant as a protest against the ownership and use of large portions of land in the Highlands for only a few wealthy people. These men call themselves John McNab.

Neil Lindores proposes to do the same thing, aided by his friends Murray Hamilton and Alasdair Sutherland. He does not count, however, on attracting the attention of Kirsty Fowler, a local journalist.

With plenty of close calls, the adventure begins, but the men’s final target is Balmoral. The Prince of Wales is in residence, and the security people are apt to believe that the well-publicized challenge is a threat hidden within a stunt.

This novel is an earlier book by Greig. It is entertaining enough, but it does not feature the brilliance of some of his later works. It’s strictly an adventure/romance novel.

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Day 1242: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary

Cover for Lady Rose and Mrs MemmaryLady Rose and Mrs Memmary is an odd little book. It shows its naive heroine in the grip of Romanticism until she learns what the real world is like.

The novel begins in the 1930’s, when it was written. A couple and their friend are touring the area and come upon Keepsfield, a beautiful old Scottish house, which is available to let. They ask if they can tour the house and are taken around by Mrs Memmary, the old caretaker. As they tour the house, Helen Dacre gets Mrs Memmary to tell her about the life of Lady Rose, the Countess of Lochule, who owns the house.

Lady Rose has been brought up on stories of Rob Roy and Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. She is an extremely romantic and enthusiastic girl from a life of privilege but not luxury, the daughter of an Earl. Her parents make no bones during her debut in 1873 that their job is to marry her to a man of equal fortune and position in society.

We see little vignettes of Lady Rose’s life from the age of six until she marries Sir Hector Galowrie when she is seventeen. Her parents don’t pay attention, however, to the idea of matching Rose in temperament.

By the time the visitors appear at the house, much has changed for the aristocracy of England and Scotland. The owners of fine mansions can no longer afford to live in them. This is the story of the attitudes of her peers once Lady Rose decides she has done her duty, but it is also the story of the fall of the aristocracy.

For such messages, the novel is written in an extremely sentimental style, with gushing descriptions of the house and landscape and chapters ending in poetry. I don’t think it is altogether successful, but it is interesting as a document of the times.

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Day 1214: When They Lay Bare

Cover for When They Lay BareA mysterious woman moves into the empty cottage on property belonging to Simon Elliot. She has with her a set of old plates depicting the verses of a ballad, and she spends a lot of time immersing herself in the story told by the plates. The thing is, this cottage was last occupied by Jinny Lauder, and the plates were hers. And Jinny Lauder was Sim Eliot’s lover, the woman he was tried for murdering.

So, who is this woman? Could she be Jinny’s daughter? Whoever she is, she seems half off her head, and she is clearly plotting revenge against Sim Elliot.

But the person she meets is Sim’s son, home in the Borderlands to introduce his father to his fiancée, Jo. David finds this wild girl, who first identifies herself as Mary, fascinating, and he is just as interested in his father’s guilt or innocence as Mary is. In fact, he despises his father for betraying his mother.

Greig used the conceit of retelling an ancient ballad in Fair Helen, an idea I really admired. Here again, he brings in an old ballad and the feuding families of the Borderlands, but I don’t think it works as well. In particular, the focus on the plates becomes tedious. After a while, each time the girl went back to look at the plates, I sighed.

Still, Greig’s writing is gorgeous, and his settings are evocative. Greig examines the concept of fate in this novel. Are the Elliots and Lauders doomed to pursue their feud?

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Day 1194: House. Tree. Person.

Cover for House. Tree. PersonI scented gaslighting very early on in Catriona McPherson’s newest cozy creepster, House. Tree. Person. That did not spoil my enjoyment.

Ali McGovern has a trauma in her past and hints of a nervous breakdown. Her family is in a precarious financial position, too, because her husband, Marco, used her successful salon to prop up his failing restaurant. So, they lost both. When Marco falsifies her credentials to get her a job at Howell Hall, a mental hospital, she goes along with it, thinking she won’t get the job. But she does.

She comes home after her first day at work to a different problem. Her fifteen-year-old son, Angelo, is implicated somehow in the discovery of a body on the grounds of an old abbey across the street from the McGovern’s flat. The police think he knows something about it. Marco seems to know what is going on, but neither Marco nor Angelo will tell her.

At work she meets a cheerful and supportive staff, but her boss, Dr. Ferris, finds fault with her slightest action. In a catatonic patient, Sylvia, Ali thinks she sees signs of consciousness. She also believes that something is going on with Julie, a teenage patient who claims she’s being held there against her will.

Catriona McPherson has become one of my favorite writers for suspenseful and spooky but light reading. Her characters are engaging, and she creates a strong sense of place in small-town Scotland. House. Tree. Person. is another page-turner from her.

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Day 1172: The Long Drop

Cover for The Long DropAlthough it too is set in Glasgow, The Long Drop is a departure from Denise Mina’s usual crime series. Instead, it is an account of the crimes and trial of Scotland’s first serial killer, Peter Manuel. In the 1950’s, Manuel was tried and found guilty of the murders of two families and a woman. Although he likely killed other women, a charge against him for the murder of another woman was found not proven.

The novel follows two paths—testimony about the events of a night following the murders in which Manuel met William Watt, a man whose family were Manuel’s victims and who almost certainly paid to have his wife killed, and the actual events. Pretty much everyone in the court is lying.

This novel is billed as a thriller, but it is more of a court procedural. Although it is interesting, it suffers from not having a single character you can feel sympathy for. The wild city of Glasgow in the 1950’s is very atmospheric, however.

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Day 1165: The Winter Isles

In the 12th century, a boy warrior named Somerled in the islands west of what would become Scotland began leading his father’s small band out of obscurity. His father was ineffectual. After a victory, he failed to post guards while his people celebrated, and they were nearly annihilated, driven from their home. Afterwards, the much smaller band moves back to the caves where they first lived when they came from the mainland. But Somerled’s friend Eimhear, nicknamed Otter, is taken away by her father, who returns to the mainland.

The Winter Isles follows the rise of Somerled as he becomes Lord of the Isles. It also follows the love story between Somerled and Eimhear. Much of the novel is devoted to battles, as Somerled takes on one lord after another.

Although the novel covers an interesting period and person, it is only a middling success as a historical novel. It does not have the depth of feeling of the period or character that I expect from a really good historical novel. Characters have a few characteristics rather than distinct personalities, and we are mostly left to imagine the details of ordinary life that make a good historical novel convincing.

It was interesting to read about Somerled, but for a fuller experience of a similar time and a similar character, try King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, the queen of the historical novel.

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Day 1123: The Reek of Red Herrings

Cover for The Reek of Red HerringsAlthough I’ve come to prefer Catriona McPherson’s contemporary thrillers, for lighter fare, her Dandy Gilver mysteries are lots of fun. Dandy began her career in 1918 with After the Armistice Ball. Twelve years later, she and her partner Alec Osbourne are more sedate, but not much more.

Dandy and Alec’s newest client wants them to skip the family Christmas to investigate a confidential problem. He is a herring exporter, and several barrels of his herring have been returned containing foreign objects, that is, the pieces of someone’s body. Mr. Birchfield does not want to notify the police, because knowledge of this problem will ruin his business. He wants Dandy and Alec to find out who is missing and what happened.

Because the herring fishermen and the “quines,” the girls who gut the fish, only return home a couple of months a year, they must travel to the fishing village of Gamrie, on the Banffshire coast, over Christmas. Dandy is all too happy to escape a dreary house party.

In Gamrie, the two pose as philologists, supposedly recording the local dialect. The village is an uncomfortable one, with freezing weather and a stark hotel as the only accomodation. The villagers themselves are caught up in the preparations for five marriages. All the brides are pregnant, for the custom is to be handfasted and only marry if the handfasting “takes,” that is, the bride gets pregnant.

There is some concern in the village about the marriages of two of the Mason girls. They are marrying two of the Gow boys, who fished in the same boat with John Gow, their older brother. John Gow went overboard last year, and it is considered unlucky for anyone to marry his shipmates unless they take to different boats. But the Gow brothers are keeping their brother’s boat and marrying the two Mason girls, whose older sister was handfasted to John Gow and who disappeared after his death. This news has Dandy checking with Mr. Birchfield that the corpse is indeed male, but it is.

Dandy and Alec also have the dubious pleasure, suggested by Dandy’s husband Hugh, of going to visit Searle’s Realm of Bounteous Wonder. This display is a series of rooms depicting various scenes made up entirely of stuffed animals, a wonder of taxidermy. The two brothers, Warwick and Durban, are very odd, and the exhibits are appalling.

Dandy and Alec’s investigations turn up no unaccounted for villagers except Nancy Mason, but they eventually hear about several missing strange men, people who came to town but never were seen again. Some of the men were derelicts and one was an artists’ model. At least two claimed to have work. So, Dandy and Alec go from having no potential victims to several. All the while, a terrific storm is threatening.

This novel was interesting, from the perspective of the villagers’ wedding traditions and beliefs. Although I figured out fairly soon something about the missing men, I did not figure out the overall scope, nor the identity of Mr. Pickle, as Alec calls the body. This was a fun, if a bit ghoulish, mystery.

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