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Murder in the Highlands

A Small Death in the Great Glen by AD Scott Recommended by Peter Robinson, Ann Cleeves and Malla Nunn I anticipated that I’d like the mystery novels by A.D. Scott, but since I was thinking about taking them on a trip I wanted to be sure, so I have the read the first one before my holiday.

And yes, I liked A Small Death in the Great Glen very much and will take the two that follow with me for holiday reading. And, yes I am taking real books – not e-books. I am yet to be convinced that e-books are good for much of anything, even though I do understand the reasons many people now travel with e-books. But, the damage that the development of e-books has caused in the “book industry” is becoming very serious. It is a fact that e-books are rapidly eroding book sales in independent bookstores – my own included. Their sales result in less income to authors and less profit to publishers, something that will soon mean less choice for readers looking for well-written, well-edited literary books. I know the “weight” of books might seem a concern, but I’d rather have more books in my baggage and less clothes and cosmetics. I start months before a trip making a pile of books – books about plants and birds, travel guides and maps, and novels set in the country I’m going to explore. I want the experience of reading a real book – a paper book – while sitting on a hillside, by the seaside, in the comfy lounge or in bed at my B & B. I don’t have to worry about electronics, or Internet connections in the back of beyond, or water damage. If I leave my book behind in an airport the worst consequence is that I won’t know “who dun it” until I can buy another copy. If I’ve made a mistake in my selection and I’m not enjoying the book I can pitch it, and if it is great I can pass it on to another traveller.

But, back to A.D. Scott and her novel A Small Death in the Great Glen, where it is 1956, and we are in the Highlands of Scotland, inland a little from the costal village of Nairn. John McAllister is our central character, working at the local weekly newspaper, the Highland Gazette, along with Don McLeod, young Rob Mclean and Joanne Ross. I must say it took me a while to be clear about who was who, but as I got to know the circumstances of their pasts, and their connections to each other and the secondary characters, it all became clear. I think this is true when beginning any series, as the reader is being introduced to a new cast of characters and their world for the first time. By the time I got on top of who everyone was and their basic relationships, I was well on my way to caring about what was going to happen next.

A.D. Scott gives us a very clear and realistic portrayal of the time and place – the place where she grew up but writes about from Australia, where she has lived for many years. It is ten years after the end of the Second World War; lives are beginning to be more normal, life a little easier. But there are still the memories of having to do without for those who stayed at home, and the horrors of battle are all too fresh for many of those who fought. Now we talk about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and seek treatment, then it was “get on with it”. In this novel we see very clearly the effects of a badly damaged man, Joanne’s husband Bill, on his marriage, his wife and his children.

In the 1950’s, children had the freedom to run at will, their safety assumed in a small town where everyone knows each other, the community parties and celebrations. We have Bunty comics, woolen undergarments, Passing Cloud and Sobrainie Cocktail cigarettes, all of which some of us are old enough to remember. Most women did not work outside of the home, doing so “disgraced” a husband who would be seen to be someone who could not support his family. Nor did a woman leave her husband – you made your bed, now lie in it. There are few immigrants in the Highlands at this time, but there are Italians who settled in highland villages, opening chip shops and ice cream and coffee shops. They are tolerated, even well liked, until there is a murder. Two children declare that they saw young Jamie’s snatched; by a hoodie crow they say. Dismissed at first as children’s hysteria or lies.

Then, because no one local could have done such a thing, the foreigners are immediately suspect. Only a stranger could have murdered a child – and only a foreigner could have “interfered” with a child. There are also the Tinkers to be suspected, the Travellers in their caravans, with their foreign ways. They have lived in the highlands for generations, these gypsies in their caravans moving about the countryside at will.

For McAllister and the staff at the Gazette this murder is a big story, and they are all investigating and listening to friends and family. But for McAllister it becomes very personal when he begins to see links between this case and a tragedy in his own family. The murder, and possible molestation, of an innocent child boils the blood. But it is also clear that the attitude at this time about possible sexual abuse by priest is “that’s just the way it is” and no one is prepared to investigate or take action against a well-liked member of the community. What everyone says, even now is “I can’t believe it – he was such a nice man”. And the man in question is simply moved on. McAllister, however, is determined to find out the truth about this new death, and to find out what really caused another death some years earlier.

So, while you’re reading this one, I’m on to the next, Double Death on the Black Isle, and I’ve got the third in the series, Beneath the Abbey Wall in my suitcase for tomorrow.

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