Posted in Book Reviews

1588: A Calendar of Crime Review

SHIRLEY McKay has written five novels in the popular Hew Cullan series, each set against the backdrop of a major political event. Cullan’s latest adventures are set in the year the Spanish Armada tried to invade England and depose Elizabeth I. There are five tales marking key points in the calendar – Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas, Martinmas, and Yule – tracing a year in the life of the young scholar, lawyer and sleuth in his St Andrews home.

Candlemas, featuring the suspicious death of Blair the candlemaker in his crackling house, introduces some of the less pleasant aspects of 16th-century life. The process by which tallow candles were made is explained, from the flesher cutting the fat off farm animals to the candle maker preparing it for his candles. Thanks to McKay’s vivid writing the foul smells of boiling animal fat and burning tallow seem to rise up from the page. Cullan’s sure and steady investigative technique discovers the truth, but it is not as black-and-white as he and his friend Dr Giles Locke might wish.

Whitsunday sees local dignitary Lord Justice Semphill dance naked during the night before transforming into a rook. As Cullen investigates, McKay weaves in the fear of witchcraft and various superstitions of the time. It is well done; understated but informative. Meg, Cullen’s sister and an expert in using herbs, helps him to unravel the mystery which includes “an ointment prescribed for griefs of the fundament”. It is an amusing story with the dark subtext of witchcraft lending it added complexity.

McKay has a splendid knowledge of the Scots tongue that comes to the fore in Lammas, with the exchanges between Elspet, in service in the harbour inn, and Walter Bone, her boss. She calls him “Sliddershanks” on account of his crippled legs, while he calls her “Mimmerkin” because of her small and slight stature. He tells her she is not the kind of woman to serve the customers in the bar, being a “pin-hippit runt”, so she works mainly in the kitchen. The Lammas Fair brings excitement and the chance of romance to St Andrews, although for some it has lost its charms. “Fairs are for lovers and bairns, and I am fair trauchled wi both,” says Canny Bett to Cullan. The fear of a Spanish invasion looms large, and as Martinmas comes around so too does Halloween. The veil between the living and dead worlds grows thinner and strange things happen in St Andrews. Cullan and his friends must discover what’s afoot. Are those ghostly figures really the beginning of a Spanish invasion?

Yule again shows McKay’s excellent grasp of the everyday lives of 16th-century Scots. Children learn songs to sing at the nativity and all through the houses the best food and drink that could be afforded is made ready. Treats like minchit pies – filled with fruits, spice and strips of flesh – coloured tarts, marchpanes and gingerbread are made, a surfeit of which causes a “belly-thraw”. However, the festive season doesn’t mean that Cullan’s skills are any less in demand.

McKay makes it easy to slip into 16th-century St Andrews, the sense of place and time is so strong. Mary, Queen of Scots, has been beheaded just the year before and her son, James VI, is King of Scots. Elizabeth Tudor is trying to avoid outright war with the Spanish by using her wits and the information her legion of spies bring her. Cullan, an honest if sometimes staid hero, stands between the old ways, full of superstitions and folklore, and the progressive ideas his education has taught him. McKay is developing Cullan’s private life with his wife, Frances, but for much of the time he is the vehicle through which the reader observes the solution to the mysteries. This means that the other characters are more active and rounded but Cullan is a likeable and reliable guide to the goings-on in Fife’s cathedral town. McKay’s novel in five books is a fascinating evocation of the everyday life of ordinary Scots in the 1500s as well as being a series of first-rate stories. Her use of language is a delight, the sinewy and expressive Scots words aiding the creation of Cullen’s very realistic world. For anyone struggling with the lesser-known words – bumbaise, caquetoire, limmar, pilliewinks – the volume includes a helpful glossary. This is an impressive addition to the Hew Cullan series, and McKay is to be congratulated for the continued quality and inventiveness of her tales.

1588: A Calendar of Crime: A Novel in Five Books by Shirley McKay is published by Polygon, priced £14.99

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Posted in Book Reviews

Rather be the Devil Review

Rather be the Devil
Ian Rankin
Orion Books, £19.99
Review by Shirley Whiteside

IAN RANKIN returns to his most famous character, John Rebus, for another tale about the seamier side of Edinburgh. Taking its title from a John Martyn song, it is a story about power and greed, liberally doused with violence and betrayal. It brings Rebus together with his former foe, DI Malcolm Fox, and loyal friend, DI Siobhan Clarke, as he works a cold case. It also reintroduces Gerald Morris Cafferty, a man who once and possibly still does rule the city’s underworld, into Rebus’ life.

Rebus may be retired but the itch to investigate has not left him. Some 40 years before, the beautiful Maria Turquand, an Edinburgh socialite, was murdered in her hotel room at the same time as local-boy-made-good rock star, Bruce Collier, was staying in the hotel with his entourage. The scene was chaotic and Maria’s murderer was never found. Keen to find answers, Rebus asks Clarke to slip him the Turquand files and begins sifting through them looking for clues.

Rankin’s portrayal of the retired Rebus is suffused with melancholy. He should be content, with his work-day worries over and a deepening relationship with Deborah Quant, a police pathologist, but he’s not. His inability to let go of his job and relax into a new way of life is sad. On doctor’s orders he is giving up smoking and cutting down on his drinking, which shortens his temper while potentially lengthening his life.

The main action involves DI Clarke and DI Fox. Clarke is still miffed that Fox got a posting to the Scottish Crime Campus that she wanted and reluctantly agrees to work with him on the murder of a pub bouncer. Rebus becomes a witness as he was the last person to speak to the deceased in the course of his Maria Turquand investigation. Rebus takes full advantage of the opportunities that being inside a police station again offer, from information to chocolate biscuits. However long after he has reason to be there, Rebus turns up again and again in the station, which rather undermines the sense of realism that Rankin uses to underpin his tales.

Clarke and Fox are also investigating an attack on Darryl Christie, an up-and-coming local gangster and suspect that Rebus’ arch enemy, Big Ger Cafferty, might be clipping the upstart’s wings. This gives Rebus the chance to catch up with his old adversary, the one criminal who always got away, who is now “the respectable ex-gangster around town”.

Clarke and Fox make a good team, their differences in approach complementing each other. They work as equals, which makes them a more appealing double act than Clarke and Rebus, with Clarke no longer the sidekick. Yet she remains a rather under-developed character, lacking the kind of personal or inner life that would flesh her out. She is a smart police officer but not adroit enough to negotiate the politics that would have got her the job she wanted. Fox, although tightly buttoned up, is an intriguing character and his relationship with his wayward sister subtley reveals a lot of his backstory and explains why he is normally so by-the-book. Other characters, however, are cardboard cut outs; DI James, Clarke and Fox’s boss is typically pompous, Darryl Christie, is an archetypical young criminal looking to take over Edinburgh’s underworld, and Big Ger Cafferty, who looks like a cartoon thug but has the nous of a wily barrister is no more three-dimensional.

There is a sense of glee as Rankin takes pot shots at bankers and others in the Edinburgh elite. The activities of a scion of a famous banking dynasty, amoral and slippery, are cleverly juxtaposed with those of the professional criminal class. As this suggests, Rather be the Devil is not a crime novel full of desperate chases or explosive revelations. It is the steady untangling of many different strands in order to reach a conclusion on the murders of the bouncer and Maria Turquand. Rankin’s use of language is not remarkable but it does suit his characters, and he has a nice line in sarcastic humour. When Fox is asked how he takes his tea, he says, “Without saliva, preferably.”

While being marketed as a Rebus novel, it actually belongs more to Clarke and Fox. Rebus is a shadowy figure, a metaphor perhaps for the shadow he calls Hank Marvin, which glowers over him throughout the story.