Shirley McKay, Fate & Fortune (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2010)
This second Hew Cullan mystery begins two years after the events of the first. It is 1581: Hew has returned to St Andrews on the death of his father, a man rendered a stranger to him through time and distance.
Mathew Cullan has left Hew a wealthy, if dissatisfied, man. Sorting through the minutiae of his inheritance leads Hew to discover a manuscript written by his father. It appears to be nothing more than a memoir or textbook of old legal cases, designed to encourage the recalcitrant son to finally follow his father into the law – a career choice Hew resists, even though he feels almost obliged to undertake pupilage with his father’s friend, Richard.
The legal textbook is tied to a printing press in Edinburgh that the elder Cullan was unaccountably funding. With his father’s executors at the capital, Hew takes the manuscript along in the hope of killing two birds with one stone.
But a killing closer to home – the rape and murder of a 15-year-old – captures Hew’s attention first, and his fundamental desire for justice sees him drawn into an adventure of death, treason and betrayal. Underlying it all is the tension of Cullan’s scarcely understood dissatisfaction at a legal system which is quite distinct from ideas of right and wrong, victims and perpetrators, truth and clever lies.
McKay’s prose is as lush as in the first outing – the plot’s pace is leisurely, especially in the first half, but this gives us the chance to dwell on the detail. We can enjoy the writing, appreciate the subtle embedding of the research and really become immersed in time and place. Once again I was struck by the well-rounded humanity of the people McKay writes about – not simply the domestic tribulations of the main characters: the very likeable Hew, his sister Meg, her husband and Hew’s friend, Giles Locke. The supporting cast is full of wonderful vignettes. I can hardly think of anyone in the novel who doesn’t strike me as fully-rendered in three dimensions, from the married couple who lost their son twenty years ago, to the greedy Edinburgh jeweller acting as Matthew Cullan’s executor. Even the young King James, making two small cameos, is finely drawn, and doesn’t distort the narrative in the way historical figures often do in this genre.
The book functions well as a mystery, too. One of the other things that author does well is to plant seemingly unimportant details as clues. With the exception of one slight deus ex machina device towards the end, you feel that McKay has played fair with you all along; given you the information you need to solve the riddle, and it was fun to reflect on what I spotted and what I missed. It also reinforces the notion that Cullan isn’t a super-sleuth but simply an empathic, intelligent and tenacious man.
My experience of the novels so far is that they are a treat, to be savoured occasionally, like a fine whisky, so I’ve waited three months since reading the first novel, Hue & Cry. I’ve bought the rest of the series, but whilst the temptation is to gulp them all down, I’m going to try to ration out my visits to 16th century St Andrews as much as I can, to push back as far as possible the inevitable day when I catch up with the author.