Thursday, February 2, 2012

A week in the cave

Tomorrow turned into over a week while we were without Internet, TV and phone, thanks to AT&T. To give the company credit, all the people it sent out to fix the outage were very nice, but the problem was multi-layered and mostly in lines on the main road.  How attached we've become to technology. I am old enough to remember making trans-Atlantic phone calls during which you had to pause after speaking or end up talking over the recipient's response, because there was a 30-second delay in transmission. This week I felt as though we were living in a cave; our smart phones were our only lines to the outside. 

So, on to the promised book review: A Small Death in the Great Glen by A.D. Scott.  I picked it up because it came with a recommendation by Peter Robinson, one of my favorite mystery writers.  The first couple of chapters felt very familiar, as though I'd read the book before or seen it produced on PBS, but judging by its publication date the latter is not likely.  The hub of the story is the newsroom of the weekly Highland Gazette in 1950's Inverness. The new publisher John McAllister is trying to push the small-town ad and gossip rag into serious modern journalism. The sub-editor "and all around fusspot" Don McLeod morphs too quickly from crusty resistance to helpful accomplice. The two remaining members of the staff include a female typist Joanne Ross, who is trying to escape from her abusive husband and will likely end up the love interest of the crusading publisher, and a naive cub reporter Rob, who still lives at home and is as likeable as a furry puppy.

A young boy, Jamie, has been found naked and drowned in the canal, and the coroner later finds that he has been interfered with and murdered. Joanne's daughters Annie and Wee Jean, were the last to see him alive. They spin such a fanciful tale about "a hoodie crow" that no one takes them seriously, although the reader will start putting together the pieces before the denouement. Annie is one of the best written characters in the novel. Interwoven into the tale is a sailor who has jumped ship from a Russian freighter, a family of Scots tinkers who live by their own code, greedy politicians, a former Polish prisoner-of-war who has stayed on to marry the daughter of Italian imigrants who own a thriving chip shop, McAllister's own tortured history, and the various prejudices against outsiders, women, and change. 

Scott's debut novel holds promise, enough that I ordered the second in the series, A Double Death on the Black Isle.  Character development is not quite as "probing" as advertised, but it's on its way and not limited to just the main players.  A few plot twists are telegraphed or manipulated unnaturally, as when intelligent people ignore the obvious in order to maintain suspense. I became annoyed at some of the characters at times, but still cared what happened to them. In fact, my annoyance was due to the fact that the bones of the book are too good to settle for the facile.  I imagine Scott will improve with time.  She does provide a fascinating insight into post-war Scotland, with local color and a strong burr limning the strained relationships.

The most delightful part of the whole book, however, was learning the word "dreich," which sounds like what it means: the gray, damp, and cold weather Scotland is prone to and of which New England has its fair share.  I give the book a 6 out of 10.

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