Scotland is well known for producing a wealth of crime fiction and many amazing books are published every year. There are so many to choose from it can be hard to know where to start, but there is a literary prize which is dedicated to celebrating Scottish crime fiction.
This Friday (18th September 2020), the winner of the McIlvanney Prize - Scottish Crime book of the year will be announced as part of the Scottish crime fiction festival – Bloody Scotland dedicated to all things Scottish crime related (running digitally this year).
A couple of weeks ago the four book shortlist was announced and I decided to challenge myself to read them before the winner is announced. Considering they're all technically the same genre, there's a real variety of subjects and styles between these novels and I really enjoyed each of them. Here is a closer look at each of the shortlisted books.
The Art of Dying – Ambrose Parry - Canongate
Having really enjoyed the first in this series (The Art of Dying) I was keen to pick up with the characters of Dr James Simpson, Dr Will Raven and Sarah Fisher.
Set in Edinburgh in 1849, Dr Simpson is espousing the use of chloroform for virtually every ailment going – operations, smaller procedures, toothache, or perhaps most controversially as a way to liven up a dinner party by mixing it with sparkling water!
Will Raven his apprentice has just returned from a year travelling around Europe learning from great doctors across Europe. He returns a Doctor rather than apprentice and is shocked to find former housemaid Sarah Fisher has married. She is now officially an assistant to Dr Simpson – administering chloroform – and trying to learn all she possibly can about the field of medicine.
As they go about their routine care, patients are dying across the city with no obvious cause. Will and Sarah have to join forces to try to discover the truth behind these deaths and clear the name of Dr Simpson. A strong female character, refusing to remain in the uneducated box society thinks she belongs and a young doctor who seems to attract trouble, make for an entertaining and gripping story.
A Dark Matter – Doug Johnstone – Orenda
A story about family relationships with a particular focus on mother-daughter relationships, this is crime fiction with a difference. At the start of the book, the Skelf family are holding an unorthodox funeral for Jim Skelf following his sudden death. Now 3 generations of women (Dorothy, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah) are left with the task of running the family business – a well-known funeral-home with a bit of Private Investigator work on the side.
Each woman, ends up involved with an investigation she can’t leave alone, whilst also trying to deal with grief and continuing to run the funeral-home. Dorothy starts to question whether Jim had been keeping secrets from her for many years, Jenny becomes involved in an adultery case and Hannah investigates her flatmate who unexpectedly goes missing.
I love a story with a strong female protagonist, well this book has 3 – with the story being told from each woman’s perspective in alternating chapters. I was drawn into the book and can’t wait to read the next in the series to see what comes next for the Skelf women.
Whirligig – Andrew James Greig – Fledgling Press
The cover of this book has such a clever design – a tree made from gears. Reading the book, the significance of this image becomes clear. The huge, old oak tree is where the first dead body is found and as the deaths mount up, the police find delicate and intricate clockwork mechanisms, which have been carved from bone, at the scene of each crime.
Set in an unnamed small Highland town, featuring a police force that never expected to become the centre of a murder investigation, the case is run by DI James Corstorphine. As the story progresses, it becomes clear there is potentially a link between this case and the town's old orphanage, which used to be run by the Sisters of Holy Mercy. DI Corstorphine and his team find there has been a cover up of not so distant past crimes and he has to dig deeper and quickly before his investigation is shut down.
Although the murders and the rationale behind them are extremely dark, this book was a real page turner, which kept me reading to find out how it would all come together.
Pine – Francine Toon – Penguin
This is such an atmospheric, creepy book set on the edge of a forest in Highland Scotland. This is less pacy thriller, more slow build with an ever increasing sense of unease.
The story is told from Lauren’s 10 year old perspective. She lives in a remote part of Scotland with her father who has a drink problem and has struggled to look after her ever since his wife disappeared. She doesn’t know what happened to her mum and no one will tell her, but she knows people talk about her family.
The book starts at Halloween – a suitably ghostly evening with a ghostly event as she & her father find a woman dressed only in a white dressing gown by the side of the road. As the story builds, Lauren continues to flounder, trying to make sense of the world around her and deal with bullying at school. When an older teenager she looks up to disappears, the sense of doom increases further.
Quiet yet tense with wonderfully atmospheric descriptions, I found myself turning the pages through this novel, with such an unsettling feeling throughout.
Cosy wee reads, is all about celebrating Scottish fiction and I can't wait to find out which of the shortlisted books wins the prize. The books mentioned in this blog post are the type of crime fiction you can expect to find in a cosy wee reads package. You can find out more about subscriptions and one-off gifts here.