I adored this mystery. It’s about a double murder that takes place in 1957 in the Scottish Highlands. The people trying to get to the bottom of what happened are reporters on the small staff of the Highland Gazette. Joanne Ross, 31, is a former typist for the paper and is now a journalist along with Rob McLean, a good friend although he is ten years younger.
Joanne is a single mother of two girls, Annie and “Wee Jean”; she is also a battered wife who finally walked out on her husband three months earlier. She is attracted to the newspaper’s editor, John McAllister, and only Joanne is not aware that McAllister is also attracted to her. Don McLeod, the charming and gruff deputy editor, tries to play matchmaker between them, but this is 1957 in “a paternalistic Presbyterian rigid class-structured society” and still-married women couldn’t just be taking up with other men. Moreover, Joanne suffers a bit from “battered women’s syndrome” – full of fear, blaming herself, and lacking self-confidence.
There are some other characters we get to know on the newspaper staff, but among the chief protagonists I would be remiss not to mention the Highlands themselves. As McAllister observes, the lochs, the glens, the firths and the coast made the town what it is and the people who they are. The descriptions of the countryside, with the mountain Ben Wyvis looming over the Black Isle, help us understand the connection to the land felt by the region’s inhabitants, who, as the author explains, tilled the fields, cleared the ditches, and named every nook and cranny, every woodland, and every burn:
“The Black Isle, a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Cromarty, the Moray,and the Beauly firths, was an island of the mind rather than geography. Picturesque in parts, forbidding in places, it was quite unlike the surrounding glens of heather and lochs. … There were sacred wells, prehistoric standing stones, a castle or two, the remains of Iron Age settlements, and a history teeming with stories and characters.”
You get such a wonderful sense of place from descriptions like those, and from the colorful patois spoken by the characters – I love this exchange, for example, when Rob goes to interview one of the local “Travelers,” itinerant workers who help with the harvest:
“‘Wise move, staying for a whiley more.’
‘You think so?’ He was pleased to have Jimmy’s opinion. He was also one of the few who understood that beneath the rough, menacing exterior there lay a very rough, menacing interior, but intelligence with it.
‘Aye. You know what they say about big fishes and small lochs. I suppose you’re wanting information?’”
In the story, a couple of the Travelers, or Tinkers, as they are known, are accused of one of the murders. (The Travelers, it should be understood, are not the same as “gypsys” or Roma; they are Scottish, with ancient names, like Stuart, McPhee, Macdonald.) As the author notes:
“Their ancient culture of stories and singing and piping, their nomadic way of life, marked them as different, yet they were as much a part of Scotland as the glens and lochs and mountains.”
But there was much prejudice against the Travelers, and just being accused was often enough to assure a conviction. At the other end of the social spectrum, the richest and most powerful family in the area has also come under suspicion. Muddying up the waters, the daughter in this family, Patricia Ord MacKenzie, is one of Joanne’s oldest friends.
So many questions remained unanswered though, that it’s hard to sort out what really happened. It takes a lot of intrepid footwork by Joanne, Rob, Hec the photographer, and the others, to try to get to the bottom of of the murders. And while the pace is slow and steady, the author is not above tossing in red herrings and twists.
Evaluation: I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to learn more about the history and culture of the Scottish Highlands while getting to know the delightful characters of the Highland Gazette. This is book two in the series, but it is my first. Apparently there are more books to come, and I can’t wait!
Published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, 2011