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IN PLACE OF FEAR
by Catriona McPherson
Mobius, June 2022
314 pages
$24.95
ISBN: 1529337968


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Catriona McPherson has established herself as an author of powerful, evocative mystery novels in several genres, including suspense and historical mysteries. Her latest, IN PLACE OF FEAR, represents a new high water mark. Set in working-class Edinburgh in 1948, IN PLACE OF FEAR features as its protagonist young Mrs. Helen Crowther. Helen is an unassuming heroine, at least at first. She lives at home with her broken-down father, needling mother, younger sister, and new sort-of-husband Alexander "Sandy" Crowther, a skeletal, ghostly figure recently repatriated from a Prisoner of War camp, one of the infamous "stalags." Sandy needs help living with his trauma, which his society refuses to acknowledge. The two of them barely know each other. Helen needs breathing room.

Helen seems to have found a solution to these problems at the fledgling National Health Service: employment as a medical almoner, implicitly female role that combines public relations, outreach, and what we'd now call social work. She reports to a team of doctors, Dr. Strasser and Dr. Deuchar, who give her a place to live that used to be a clinic. Now, she and Sandy have space in which to recover and connect. There must be a catch, she thinks. Indeed there is. A young woman is found dead in Helen and Sandy's new home, apparently of suicide. Who is the dead woman? Did she really commit suicide, or was she murdered? And if she was murdered, where and why?

Helen persists in investigating this case while going about her medical almoning and struggling to help Sandy. Through Helen's eyes, McPherson explores the need for nationalized health care that actually maintains public health, postwar Britain's struggles to rebuild, modernize, and, unfortunately, forget the trauma of the recent war, and the changing social and sexual expectations of women and men. Healthcare, Helen learns, includes reproductive care and is intrinsically enmeshed in the struggle for women's basic human rights. It's impossible for her to do her job and not take a stand on these issues, as the murder case increasingly shows her. She also must confront how her own expectations of Sandy, shaped by her society's ideas about gender, class, marriage, and sexuality, impact them both.

If this makes IN PLACE OF FEAR sound like a manifesto, it's not. Macpherson's fiction is distinguished by profound cultural detail. The topography and culture, sounds, sights, tastes and smells of Edinburgh in the final years of rationing and rebuilding burst forth from Macpherson's pages. The dialogue and much of the third-person narration mines the richness of the Scots dialect, with results that are evocative yet absolutely accessible. There is a glossary at the end, but I didn't need it, even though I have not spent more than 48 hours in Scotland and know nothing of Scots dialect. IN PLACE OF FEAR is an unpretentious prose poem; a love letter to a lost Edinburgh.

Reading IN PLACE OF FEAR in the United States of late 2022, a place that increasingly abounds in fear for women's rights and public health, makes Macpherson's tale rather more immediate than historical fiction usually is. It's a tour-de-force that should be on everyone's reading list.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, July 2022

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