Review 2032: The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime is the latest British Library collection of crime short stories, edited by Martin Edwards. These stories are either set in Scotland or written by Scottish writers, like the first, “Markheim,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. They are arranged in chronological order by publication date, ranging from 1885 to 1974.

Some of the stories, like “The Field Bazaar” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are simple puzzles. In this one, Sherlock Holmes explains to Watson how he knows what is in the letter he just received. Others, like “The Running of the Deer” by P. M. Hubbard, are about the supposition of crime. “Madame Ville d’Aubier” by Josephine Tey tells the story of the heavy atmosphere emanating from a woman at a bakery and how later this woman murdered her sons and husband. In “Footsteps” by Anthony Wynne, a man figures out the connection between apparently ghostly footsteps and an attempted murder.

I liked some of the stories more than others, but they altogether make an enjoyable collection for an escapist evening.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2013: Touch Not the Nettle

Touch Not the Nettle is not necessarily a sequel to Molly Clavering’s Susan Settles Down, but it features the same locations and some of the same characters. The Armstrongs get a call from Jed’s cousin asking if her daughter, Amanda Carmichael, can come to stay. Amanda’s husband, Cocky, an explorer, has been lost in Brazil, and Amanda is being driven crazy by her selfish mother, who is demanding that she behave like a widow when they don’t know if he is dead. Although Amanda, rather brittle from her struggles in an unhappy marriage, doesn’t really want to go stay with strangers, she soon finds herself happy to be with Jed and Susan and loving the beauty of the borderlands of Southern Scotland.

Like Susan Settles Down, Touch Not the Nettle contains many descriptions of the lovely landscape and many of the same delightful or irritating characters. It is darker, however, and I’m not sure (spoilers!) how happy I am with the love interest for Amanda, Larry with the angry temperament and drinking problem. The couple’s problems are also too magically cleared up.

Perhaps this is a deeper novel than Susan Settles Down, but it is also more facile, and I didn’t like it quite as much.

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Review 2006: Susan Settles Down

Susan Parsons has been leading a wandering life keeping house for her naval officer brother Oliver, but Oliver was badly injured in a fall months before and has left the Navy, still suffering a limp and not his old self. Then Oliver inherits a small estate in Southern Scotland. It’s not in good condition and the Parsons haven’t much money, but Oliver decides to make it their home.

While Susan struggles to get some help in the kitchen and repair the worst problems of the house, Oliver begins supervising the farm work and almost immediately meets Jed Armstrong, the farmer next door. Although they immediately become friends, Susan finds Jed rude and uncouth.

Soon, the two siblings become involved in village activities. Susan befriends Peggy Cunningham, the parson’s young daughter, who has been receiving unwelcome attentions from the organist. The Parsons become fast friends with the Cunninghams, and all try to avoid the Pringle sisters, three mischievous gossips.

This novel is a lovely tale of village life in pre-World War II rural Scotland, featuring two romances. The descriptions of the landscape are beautiful, the characters are attractive, and I enjoyed it very much. However, I continued to find problems with Furrowed Middlebrow blurbs. Twice now the main character’s name has been misspelled, and this time the blurb places the novel in the Highlands.

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Review 2005: Rose Nicolson

It’s 1575. Mary Queen of Scots has been ousted from the throne of Scotland in favor of her young son James and a series of regents. This revolution has been mostly a religious one, with Queen Mary a Catholic and James (referred to as Jamie Saxe) being raised Protestant. But there is also a struggle between the Calvinists and milder forms of Protestantism.

This struggle is reflected in the home of young William Fowler, whose father is a Calvinist and whose mother, with contacts in Queen Mary’s court, is French and Catholic. However, William’s father is accidentally killed during a siege on Embra. Now William is off on the Sonsie Quine to school at St. Andrews. On the ship, he meets a red-haired boy who asks to borrow his dirk. This meeting proves fateful, as William finds out years later that the boy is Watt Scott of Buccleuch. (For Dorothy Dunnett readers, I believe this is the grandson of the man of the same name in the Lymond chronicles.)

William has an affinity for poetry, and at school he befriends another scholar, Tom Nicolson. He struggles within himself over the religious issue as he feels pressure to commit one way or the other. He also falls in love with Rose Nicolson, Tom’s beautiful sister, a fisher girl with a remarkable mind.

As the King gets older, the Catholics and Protestants compete to control him. The country remains Protestant with the Calvinists gaining power while the Catholic side gains strength at court with the arrival of a favorite from France.

As he approaches graduation, William wants to marry Rose, but she is betrothed to a fisherman with the influence to protect her. She needs this protection because her remarks have been misunderstood as evidence of witchcraft.

William, despite himself, is forced closer to deciding between the two religions and finally decides that Protestantism is the least bad alternative. He also meets Scott again and is drawn into political intrigue.

This is not dry stuff. Greig is great at depicting the realities of living in this difficult time and place. I was fascinated from page one. This novel became part of my Walter Scott prize project by getting on the shortlist, but being a fan of Greig, I had already read it.

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Review 1897: The Metal Heart

On the Orkney Islands in 1942, a German U-boat attack on Scapa Flow leads the British to fortify the seaway’s defenses using Italian prisoners of war as labor. The Italians are located on the small island of Selkie Holm, one avoided by the islanders because of its evil reputation. However, twin young women, Con and Dot, also live there, having moved to a ruined bothy after events on Kirkwell that are not at first explained. Con is afraid, though, of Angus MacLeod.

When the Italians arrive, one falls overboard, and Dot dives in to save him. His name is Cesare, and he begins working in the camp commander’s office and trying to find ways to help the girls. However, he is stopped by the brutality of guard Angus MacLeod.

I liked Lea’s The Glass Woman, and I also like her apparent preference for placing novels in remote northern locations. However, I just wasn’t feeling it here. I felt as if the characters were being put through their paces, not as if the story evolved naturally. I also felt a certain sense of manipulation. Although I was interested to find out why the girls’ parents had vanished, I wasn’t very interested in the love story. I read about half the book, then stopped.

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Review 1892: Rizzio

The Scots mystery writer Denise Mina is still concerned with crime, but with this novel, she has turned to historical true crimes. Rizzio is a novella that deals with the 1566 murder of David Rizzio, a musician and favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The murder has been engineered by Lord Lennox and Lord Ruthven, with the aid of Henry Darnley, Mary’s worthless husband. Darnley thinks the shock will cause his hugely pregnant wife to miscarry, most likely causing her to die. Then, he can be king. This is what came of their love match of the year before. To Lennox, Darnley’s father, this outcome would put him in power over his weak son. Lord Ruthven, almost dead already, is the tool of a group of aristocrats about to be dispossessed by parliament.

The novella is mostly description with little dialogue, but it has deep insight into the thoughts and personalities of its characters. It is mostly concerned with the activities of one night, March 9, 1566, in Edinburgh.

It is fast-paced and interesting. Mina has made no attempt to reflect the language of the time, and in fact wrote using modern idioms. Hence, perhaps, the lack of dialogue.

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Review 1889: Apricot Sky

Mrs. MacAlvey is looking forward to a happy summer in her home in the Scottish Highlands. Her three grandchildren who live there are home from school. Her daughter Raine is getting married to Ian Garvine, the younger brother of the local laird, and her daughter Cleo is returning from eight years in the United States. Mrs. MacAlvey also expects guests, and she loves entertaining.

Primrose, one of the grandchildren, thinks Scotland is heaven. She is ready to run wild with her brothers all summer.

Cleo seems to have left home because she was hopelessly in love with Larrich, Neil Garvine, and at first sight of him she realizes she’s not over it. However, she was too homesick to remain in the States. Neil seems more interested, though, in Inga, a young widow whom everyone but Cleo seems to love.

I really loved this novel, and its descriptions made me want to visit the Highlands even more than I already did. It’s about an eventful summer in the life of an attractive, easy-going family in 1948. The characters are likable, it is funny and has a romance, and it’s a lot of fun.

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Review 1872: The Bass Rock

Told in three compelling narratives that take place over centuries, The Bass Rock is a novel about the history of violence toward women. The novel is located on the banks of the Firth of Forth, an area of Scotland dominated by the Bass Rock.

Early in the 18th century, the local priest comes upon some young men raping a very young girl, Sarah. The priest rescues her, but the young men claim she must be a witch because she enchanted them and forced them to do it. Soon, the men have burned down the priest’s house, and the entire household must flee toward the beach.

Post-World War II, Ruth and her husband Peter have recently moved into the big house in North Berwick. Ruth doesn’t quite understand the reason for the move, since Peter works in London. He says it is for the benefit of his sons by his previous marriage, Christopher and Michael, but they are being sent off to school. Soon, newly wed Ruth finds herself left very much on her own with only the housekeeper Betty for company. She begins to discover some secrets in the family.

After Ruth’s death as an old lady, Michael’s daughter Viv is hired by the family to sort through the things left in the house so it can be sold. She has recently had some mental issues and feels like she is the family failure. Almost despite herself, she befriends Maggie, a homeless occasional sex worker who has an interesting take on things. Maggie tells her there is a ghost in the house.

This is a powerful novel. Although its theme is grim, its main characters are relatable and sometimes likable. I loved All the Birds, Singing, and this is another winner from Wyld.

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Review 1860: Luckenbooth

I just loved Jenni Fagan’s other books, so I was expecting a lot from Luckenbooth. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite deliver.

The devil’s daughter launches herself off the island where she was born, using her own coffin for a boat. She arrives at a tenement in Edinburgh to take on the function her father has sold her for, to be the surrogate mother for Mr. Uldam’s child with his fiancée Elise.

This is the first of nine story threads that proceed up the nine floors of 10 Luckenbooth Close, a building of secrets and horrors. The novel has a specific structure. It is split into thirds, with each third featuring the tales of residents on three floors of the building, and each thread advancing a decade in time, beginning in 1910. On the second floor, a transgender woman attends a transgressive party in 1928. On the third floor, a black Southern American works in the bone library of a veterinary school in 1939, and so on. The building hides some horrors that are finally revealed in 1999, when Dot, who is squatting in the derelict building, rips out the walls of the lower floors. But these secrets are no big surprise.

The stories are written in modern vernacular, which I suppose is a stylistic choice, but found it grating, especially for Levi’s letters to his brother. He’s the black American from Louisiana, and besides not sounding 1939ish, he doesn’t sound American, he doesn’t sound black, and he definitely doesn’t sound Southern. In fact, the more I think about it, I feel this choice to use modern vernacular indicates a general attitude of laziness. As an example, Levi chooses to explain things to his brother that his brother would know—like the building being called tenement, as if the U. S. hasn’t had tenements for hundreds of years. In fact, Levi is unbelievably naïve for a black man from the American South. The rich get everything while the poor get nothing? What a surprise!

Another example is that for a gothic novel that is supposed to convey the dark history of Edinburgh, there is an amazing lack of a sense of place (except for in the building) until 1999. Does this suggest that the author thus evaded any research into the appearance of Edinburgh in the past?

I can go on about this, but I just want to bring up a few more things. One is the polemic passages in the novel. There are long passages of ranting about such subjects as the treatment of the poor or women. I would have thought these ideas could have been worked in differently.

Next, I don’t know anything about William S. Burroughs, for example, whether he believed what Fagan has him say. All I know is, after the first few paragraphs when he started talking, I started flipping pages.

Finally, there is a gangster standoff in 1977 where what is said is so unlikely that I could barely stand it. It seems like it might have been a juvenile idea of a “cool” scene.

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Review 1859: Music in the Hills

Music in the Hills is the second book in Stevenson’s Dering family series. The first book, Vittoria Cottage, is about Caroline Dering. This book has as its main characters Caroline’s sister, Mamie Johnstone, and Caroline’s son, James. The last book, which I read second, is Winter and Rough Weather.

James has returned from service in Malaysia and wants to become a farmer, so Mamie and her husband Jock have invited him to their farm in the borderlands of Scotland, Mureth, to learn farming. Although James settles in well and loves Mureth, he is unhappy, because he is in love with an art student named Rhoda. He proposed to her, but she has been clear that she’s picking her career over marriage.

This novel is mostly about the everyday events and people on the farm and in the nearby village, nearby in terms of straight distance but a bit remote along a hilly, twisty road. In the novel, as in the next, the landscape is an important character. There are two major subplots, however. One is about sheep being stolen from Mureth. The other is about Holly, the niece of Lady Shaw. She’s making a dead set at James, but there’s something about her that Mamie distrusts.

Another lovely book from Stevenson. I haven’t read Vittoria Cottage for a long time, but it makes me want to revisit it.

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