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.

Thursday Quotables: A Small Death in the Great Glen

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

If you’d like to participate, it’s really simple:

  • Follow Bookshelf Fantasies, if you please!
  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now.
  • Link up via the linky below (look for the cute froggy face).
  • Make sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com).
  • Have fun!

This week’s Thursday Quotable:

Joanne went into a dwam*, floating with the gull. Floating over the castle braes, over the river, across to the cathedral without a single wing movement, he (for it always seemed a him to her) drifted on toward the infirmary, back over to the war memorial, disappearing into the tangle of the Islands.

She could feel herself nestling into the shoulders of the gull, oily satin-smooth feathers smelling of fish. Up into the thermals they floated, taking in the river, the town, the hills, the mountains, the Great Glen, the faultline that fractured the Highlands. Peaks and scree-strewn ridgelines were mirrored in the ribbon of deep dark lochs. Glens clad in a  faded tartan of heather and bracken with splashes of green outlining abandoned crofts emptied by the Clearances** were cut deep by drunken burns and rivers. A fierce and stunning landscape; it made Joanne want to sing.

*Dwam: Scottish term for “daydream” or “reverie”.

**The Highland Clearances. See Wikipedia for info.

Source:  A Small Death in the Great Glen
Author: A. D. Scott
Atria, 2010

Sigh. I just love this description of the Scottish Highlands — one of my dream destinations!

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

Link up, or share your quote of the week in the comments.

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

 A Small Death in the Great Glen

A Small Death in the Great Glen by A. D. Scott

From Amazon:

In the Highlands of 1950s Scotland, a boy is found dead in a canal lock. Two young girls tell such a fanciful story of his disappearance that no one believes them. The local newspaper staff—including Joanne Ross, the part-time typist embroiled in an abusive marriage, and her boss, a seasoned journalist determined to revamp the paper—set out to uncover and investigate the crime. Suspicion falls on several townspeople, all of whom profess their innocence. Alongside these characters are the people of the town and neighboring glens; a refugee Polish sailor; an Italian family whose café boasts the first known cappuccino machine in the north of Scotland; and a corrupt town clerk subverting the planning laws to line his own pocket.

Together, these very different Scots harbor deep and troubling secrets underneath their polished and respectable veneers—revelations that may prevent the crime from being solved and may keep the town firmly in the clutches of its shadowy past.

Why do I want to read this?

I’ll be honest — they had me at Scottish Highlands. I’m a sucker for this setting, although most of my Highlands fiction tends to take place centuries in the past, with an emphasis on dashing men in kilts. I’ve yet to read a book set in Scotland within a more contemporary time frame — as soon as I spotted this one in a bookstore, I knew it was for me. The story itself sounds intriguing — local drama and deception, a tragic and suspicious death, a melting pot of townspeople and immigrants. Great ingredients for what I hope will be a terrific mystery!

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!