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Monday, May 21st, 2012 at 10:27 am
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Book Reviews

Death of a Chief

Douglas Watt lives in Linlithgow with his wife Julie and their three children. He is the author of The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of Nations, a history of the Darien Disaster and Parliamentary Union between Scotland and England as well as a published poet. Douglas Watt has now turned to fiction.  His recent, and now reissued, first novel, Death of a Chief, (Luath, RPP£6.99) is the promised first in a series of pre-Enlightenment crime novels, featuring John MacKenzie, a Gaelic-speaking and widowed Edinburgh Advocate of Highland family with a forensic mind and melancholic tendencies.

The scene is Edinburgh in 1686.  James VII and II is on the throne.   Highland and Lowland Scotland are bitterly divided.  Religion also separates the powerful into warring factions.  Sir Lachlan MacLean, an impoverished Highland laird, with a Royalist history, has died in Edinburgh in mysterious circumstances.  His death is a result of poison but is it murder or is it suicide?  MacLean had substantial debts and countless enemies.  MacKenzie and his douceclerk and aspiring Notary, the young Lowlander, Davie Scougall, investigate.

At one level this is Ian Rankin meets Sir Walter Scott (but without the academic monologues): dastardly deeds, men and women with twisted motives, dynastic struggles, bitter religious factionalism, all leavened with some hints of romance, but the essence of the tale remains the mystery of MacLean’s death and its unravelling.  The first half of the narrative is set in Edinburgh and its surroundings and although the streets and localities are nominally recognisable, this is a foetid, pre-New Town city.  The Nor’ Loch fills what is now the Waverley Station and its railway approaches, and the second awful murder of the story is concluded on its banks.

Although the city that is portrayed is almost mediaeval in its architecture and sanitation, it is already a bustling city of law and was then still a parliamentary capital.  Business and political chicanery advanced hand-in-hand.  (Plus çe change!)  Much of the story centres round the rivalries and ambitions within the great legal families. There are also however diversions from the city, to Colinton and Currie and to the fine houses and gardens which were beginning to be developed by the landed classes, and indeed by the legal dynasties, in the late seventeenth century.

But the scene changes as Sir Lachlan’s cortege leaves the capital to return to his Highland seat.MacKenzie and Scrougall accompany it, convinced that the death was murder and committed to uncovering the perpetrator.

In that eventful journey, the Gael, MacKenzie, is well-matched to the context but naïve young Scougall, who comes out trumps in the end, has to realign all his Presbyterian prejudices as he and MacKenzie are kidnapped by lawless caterans and rescued by equally lawless MacGregors.  Suspicions are aroused by almost every character in the plot and Watt maintains the suspense to the end.

In many ways this is a refreshingly old-fashioned tale, a rollicking good read, which gallops along at a fine pace.  It also captures, in the characters and their concerns, the real historical conflicts of the epoch it portrays.  If the two investigators are not yet totally rounded characters that may well be remedied as the series continues.  How will the Episcopalian MacKenzie and the Presbyterian Scougall cope with the arrival of William and Mary?  Will the Union of the Parliaments offer new opportunities for corruption and crime and opportunities also for MacKenzie and Scougall to uncover the perfidies of that ‘parcel of rogues in a nation’?  Will Scougall scale the ladder, either professionally or by a romantic link with his master’s daughter?

Meanwhile, Death of a Chief is available here from Amazon


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