Although this novel (published 2011) begins the Hew Cullan mysteries, I arrived having read the latest, ‘1588: A Calendar of Crime‘ (2016) – whose review you can read here – first.
In many ways, therefore, this felt like a prequel, assembling the cast and creating several relationships I’d already become familiar with.
Think a far superior version of Star Wars episodes I-III …
We begin with Cullan arriving back at St Andrews after an extended stay in France, picking up the threads of his old life: a father with definite ideas about his son’s future; a sister who is almost a stranger, having grown into a young woman in his absence; friends whose paths have diverged from his own. As he struggles to make his way and find his place, Cullan becomes involved in the investigation of a series of murders beginning with the bludgeoning of a teenage boy.
This is far removed from ‘écriture féminine’, yet I was struck by how forcefully and sensitively McKay presents a series of female vignettes intertwined with the main narrative. We find the ambitious teenager, suddenly aware of how she fascinates men and the opportunities this might bring; the wife who finds herself pregnant with a baby that cannot be her husband’s; the spirited, intelligent woman at risk of calling down the wrath of a disapproving patriarchal society. These everyday details and dilemmas create a well-rounded world which is far more than the stereotypical sleuthing series usually offers. And Cullan himself is likeable and empathic. I particularly enjoyed his burgeoning friendship with the physician, Giles. And on this occasion, with a nod to Hamlet, perhaps, we get a ‘play-within-a-novel’ for good measure.
Having read and enjoyed both ends of the series, it’s difficult to imagine my not reading the rest now, which is as much a recommendation as a star rating.