Book Review: A Small Death in the Great Glen

Book Review: A Small Death in the Great Glen by A. D. Scott

A Small Death in the Great GlenThe staff of the Highland Gazette produces the same little newspaper week in, week out. Classifieds on the front page, sporting and racing results on the inside, updates on farming, women’s club meetings, and the like filling up the rest of the four-page spread. Certainly no investigative reporting, nothing controversial, nothing that the “big city” papers in Edinburgh or Glasgow might cover. But when a young boy is found dead in a canal, the new editor-in-chief demands more from the small team of reporters, and they soon become enmeshed in an investigation that threatens the stability of their insular town.

Set in the the Scottish Highlands in the mid-1950s, A Small Death in the Great Glen is a murder mystery, but at the same time is a compelling portrait of a time and place. Ten years after World War II, the effects of the war are still being felt. An abused wife tries to live with her husband’s rage and frustration, recognizing that he came home from war different from the person she’d married. The Italian immigrant who runs the town’s café (with the only cappuccino machine in the Highlands!) is accepted by the community — but with limits. When a Polish sailor jumps ship in the harbor at the same time that the boy’s murder occurs, the strangers in town are immediately suspect, and the underlying mistrust of foreigners — even those who’ve lived and worked alongside the townsfolk for a decade — lead to ugliness and division.

The focal point of the story is Joanne Ross, who shocks her family by taking a part-time job at the paper as a typist — women are supposed to be at home! What next, wearing trousers? Joanne needs escape from her bitter home life, and finds it at the Gazette, where she is pushed to think for herself and actually write newsworthy content. As Joanne grows professionally, she has to face facts about her marriage and make choices that, in the mid-1950s, are not at all easy for a woman with two small children.

The mystery at the heart of A Small Death in the Great Glen is compelling and has several surprising twists. The history and mythology of the Highlands come into play, as do the various factions and prejudices beneath the surface of a seemingly harmonious town.

Apart from the investigation of the murder itself, there were really two elements in this book that gave me the greatest enjoyment. First is the setting itself: I’m a sucker for Scotland, particularly the Highlands, and this book is filled with descriptions of the glens and braes, the rocky terrain, the natural surroundings, that are so vivid that I could practically feel it.

Pleasure came from the small things; tickling for trout, watching the birds, the eagle hunting, stalking the deer. Cloudscapes of great beauty highlighted the four-seasons-in-one-day phenomenon that was called weather in Scotland, but often it was dreich for days, sometimes weeks, on end.

(My Thursday Quotables selection for this week is from A Small Death in the Great Glen. See it here for another snippet of description of the Highland landscape.)

The second element that really elevates this book above a standard mystery is the glimpse into the inner workings of a small community, at once tight-knit and full of resentments and judgments. Thanks in large part to my obsession with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, I have a familiarity with the Highlands of centuries past; A Small Death in the Great Glen is a lovely insight into 20th century Scotland and what life would have been like for people in the post-war era of that time.

I don’t usually read mysteries, but I’m glad that the Highlands setting drew me to this book. I enjoyed the people, the relationships, the investigation, and the portrait of the intermingled communities that make up the society of this small Scottish town. When I first picked up A Small Death in the Great Glen, I hadn’t realized that it’s the first book in a series. Two more are currently available, with another due for publication later this year. No worries, though: A Small Death in the Great Glen stands on its own just fine. If you enjoy mysteries — or, like me, just want a little taste of the Highlands, give this one a try!

As for me, I’m looking forward to reading the next book, A Double Death on the Black Isle, next time I crave a visit to Scotland.