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by Shona MacLean
Quercus, August 2011
352 pages
20.00 GBP
ISBN: 1849163146

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Alexander Seaton, a regent someone who takes a group of students from first year to graduation, teaching all subjects and acting in loco parentis - at Marischal College in Aberdeen in 1631, discovers the body of his friend, Robert Sim, the University Librarian, murdered, his throat cut with a scalpel. Sim had been looking at a gift of books mortified (left in a will) to the university from an old graduate who had been working in the Netherlands.

Seaton is given the task of investigating the murder by the Principal, Patrick Dun. All seems very complex. Is it the Masons? Is it the Rosicrucians? A desperate student? A mad regent? Was he killed for something he knew? The investigation sheds much light on the possible suspects but not much on the murder. Then a weaver returns to Aberdeen after many years in the Low Countries. He reports that he recognised someone on the streets of Aberdeen whom he knew in Holland, but the person tells him he is mistaken. Then the weaver turns up dead. The investigation turns to identifying the person he saw and then connecting that person to the dead librarian.

The author certainly knows her period and the geography of Aberdeen, although I don't think you can actually hear the sea from Back Wynd. But her 17th century Aberdonians speak better English than their 21st century successors. I suppose an attempt at authenticity would lead to incomprehensibility. So better just to ignore the problem.

At that time Aberdeen had two universities Marischal College and King's College. (England also had two.) Much is made of the Scottish attitude to education as a means of bettering oneself. Scotland is shown as being well connected with the continent especially those parts across the North Sea. There is no feeling of being insular and unsophisticated even although the place was far from metropolitan centres.

No one knows much about individuals of the period and place so it is inevitable that people of whom a little is known make their appearance in the novel. So we meet George Jameson, the portrait painter, as well as Sir Thomas Burnett of Leys (and Crathes Castle),and Patrick Dun, the university principal at the time.

The plot is insubstantial and is mainly an excuse to rehearse the current attitudes towards Free Masonry, Rosicrucian beliefs, married life, the power of the church to control morality, the style of university teaching and discipline etc., but all this is done very well and is in any case rather interesting. And it does give the background needed to make the plot believable. Also the day to day reality of life its smells and sounds, its casual violence form the background of the story.

The hero has the annoying habit of being the only person to believe that his wife is being unfaithful. This fills up more pages with mental anguish than it is worth and adds little to the plot, although it brings some interesting characters to prominence. It only serves to make the hero seem less intelligent than he is although I suppose it is meant to make him more human. The villain is rather difficult to believe in. He kills his victims in order to conceal not very much but then murderers often do. He is given lots of pages of inner turmoil to talk about his anguish and to divert the reader.

The book is part of a series with Alexander Seaton as the hero and one can see various characters being introduced who will, no doubt, have larger parts in future episodes. It succeeds very well in bringing 17th century Aberdeen to life in every way except language and dialect. I'm looking forward to reading more about Alexander Seaton.

Graeme Churchard is retired and lives in Bristol. Once upon a time he was a geologist and drilling engineer. And now he has the time to read crime novels.

Reviewed by Graeme Churchard, January 2012

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