This is the fifth book in a somewhat cozy murder mystery series set in the late 1950’s in the Scottish Highlands. The recurring characters operate a small newspaper, the Highland Gazette. Sometimes, in order to get the bottom of a story, they end up investigating and solving a crime as well.
In this book, Highland Gazette editor John McAllister is taking care of his fiancée, Joanne Ross – one of the reporters on the Gazette. In the previous book, Joanne received a brain injury at the hands of a psychopath, and she has not yet recovered. McAllister has taken her into his house to recuperate, along with her two girls, Annie, 11 1/2, and “wee Jean,” 9, as well as Joanne’s former mother-in-law, Granny Ross, who is helping with the girls.
The wedding they had scheduled is just six weeks away, but McAllister is full of misgivings:
What if she’s never herself again? What if Joanne is never again the woman I love, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with?”
McAllister is ashamed of having these thoughts, and yet he can’t deny them. But in spite of his shame, he craves normality. He longs “to escape the troupe of doctors and nurses and police and friends and parents-in-law ….”
And there is more that is bothering McAllister. Although he transformed the Highland Gazette, elevating it from a boring local broadsheet, it will never be the kind of exciting career he had when he was working for Glasgow’s Herald as a renowned war correspondent in Europe. And Glasgow itself – so much more exciting than the sleepy, though beautiful, Highlands. The technicolor of his youth, he is thinking, has dimmed to sepia. McAllister is starting to feel very trapped, and spends much too much time drinking whiskey.
Just at his most vulnerable, McAllister is asked by an old friend, Jenny McPhee, to help find her grown son Jimmy, gone missing in Glasgow. McAllister’s mother, still in Glasgow, has also contacted McAllister about Jimmy. McAllister goes to his old workplace at The Glasgow Herald for help, and there meets Mary Ballantyne, a young (28), pretty, ambitious reporter who senses a good story and decides to help McAllister. McAllister not only has to navigate the dangerous waters of gang feuds in Glasgow, but deal with his own desires to escape his quiet life; damaged fiancée; inherited family obligations back in the Highlands; and his growing attraction to Mary and to the youth she represents. And while Joanne may not be herself, she understands enough to be terrified that McAllister may not return.
Discussion: Scott has taken us through the emotional ups and downs of these characters in previous books, and the realistic way they are drawn is very impressive. In addition, the author has a knack for making the settings come to life as well, whether the atmospheric beauty of the Highlands or desolation of the post-war landscape of Glasgow:
…it was a tall, soot-blackened tenement block, one that had survived the carpet bombing of Clydeside. They parked in front of an empty block, bright with fireweed and broken glass, which had not been so lucky. Shipyard cranes filled the skyline to the right. And litter and dust and empty dreams tumbled in a wind coming off the river.”
Scott also beautifully captures the guilt so many caretakers feel, with the feelings of being ready to scream from frustration and even resentment, while also hating themselves for wanting to escape.
Evaluation: I value this series more for the portrayal of life in the 1950’s Scottish Highlands than for the crime story per se. In addition, I have come to care about the characters, and look forward to seeing what befalls them. In spite of often having quite a convoluted mystery as the plot, these books stand out more to me as well-made portraits of a fascinating time and place, in which an endearing and very human group of people struggle to achieve self-fulfillment and happiness.
Published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2014