Friday, 10 July 2009

The Merchant’s Mark by Pat McIntosh

I regard this series as something of a personal discovery, since I haven’t come across many reviews among the book bloggers I read, which is a pity – the series, set in medieval Glasgow, makes an original and worthy contribution to the ranks of historical crime fiction.

Our hero, Gil Cunningham, is a rather earnest young man at the start of his career – when we first meet him he is resigning himself, with great reluctance, to following his uncle David into a life in the Church. Gil is very aware that the world is an interesting and exciting place, but his family has lost its influence with the Scottish court (a small matter of being on the wrong side during one of those minor domestic skirmishes that so characterised the House of Stewart (in this case, the battle of Sauchieburn, which saw the death of James III at the hands of a rebel army led – in name, at least - by his son, James IV).

James IV of Scotland

The setting for series is Glasgow in 1492 – at this time the city, with a population of some 2000 by the end of the century, had a university and grammar school, and a cathedral dedicated to St Mungo (known outside Scotland as St Kentigern); importantly, this was the year in which the Pope made the See of Glasgow an archdiocese, thus granting considerable power to Robert Blacader, the new Archbishop, who is to play an important part in Gil’s life.

So much for the history lesson, now to The Merchant’s Mark, the third book in the series. It begins with Gil and his friend, the merchant Augie Morison, eagerly awaiting the opening of a barrel containing books from the Low Countries – printing didn’t arrive in Scotland until 1508. Unfortunately, the barrel turns out not to contain books, but a severed head and a saddlebag of money and Augie, who has collected the barrel from Linlithgow as part of a regular shipment, and travelled with it Glasgow, finds himself arrested for murder of the unknown victim. Gil, however, has achieved something of a reputation for his successful murder investigations of murder, so he is soon on the road, hoping to establish the dead man’s identity and to prove his friend’s innocence. His travels take him across southern Scotland to Stirling and Linlithgow, and finally to Roslin.

It was fun to recognise in this last location an experience that the author and I must have shared. In 1997 a massive conservation project began at the famous Rosslyn Chapel, and a canopy was erected over the roof, to allow it to dry out. While the canopy spoils the appearance of the Chapel, it has one important advantage for the visitor, in that it has allowed access to a walkway around the roof, offering an intimate and unusual view of the building. I am sure that Pat McIntosh, like me, found this irresistible, and that she was quick to make the imaginative link to another time when this building was shrouded in scaffolding, that of its construction.

A view of Rosslyn Chapel under its canopy, November 2004
The door of the church opened quietly when Gil lifted the latch. They stepped in, and it swung shut behind them with a boom which reverberated in what seemed like a vast, draughty space smelling of incense and pine resin. The floor was flagged; when Gil held his lantern up the vault of the aisle glowed in the dim light, but beyond the pillars the nave vanished upwards into darkness, with a faint, distant hint of high scaffolding. How do the poles stay up there? wondered Gil.
McIntosh brings this distant past to vivid life, its customs, its people, its language, with a warmth and attention to detail which should put her at the forefront of the genre. Her research – which is clearly a labour of love – is impeccable, and as the series has progressed her writing and her characters have both matured. Her influences are clear to see - Ellis Peters and Lindsay Davies are clearly there in the careful period detail, the characterisation and the humour, but even more important is the debt owed to Dorothy Dunnett: these books sit comfortably between the worlds of Nicholas de Fleury and Francis Lymond, and Gil shares the scholarship of these two men, if not their propensity for mayhem. Less ambitious in scope than Dunnett’s two series, the research is less obtrusive – these are books which can be read without a concordance (though we may recall that Dunnett also wrote a detective series, a somewhat heady mix of Jilly Cooper and James Bond!)

In my review of the fourth in the series, St Mungo’s Robin, last year, I voiced the concern that the writing could be a little confusing, although I wondered if I might be doing the author a disservice by reading them out of order. I now think that beginning with the first, The Harper’s Quine, is indeed the best way (no, really?) – a debut novel, it introduces both characters and setting at a slight more leisurely pace than the later ones. Of course, I am persisting in reading them as they appear on the library shelf, but Scottish history is familiar territory, as are language and landscape (James IV, a young man at the time of these stories, met his end not 10 miles from where I’m sitting - the last British monarch to die in battle), so despite my disordered approach, I am becoming an eager advocate on their behalf. It occurred to me as I reached the end on The Merchant’s Mark that the word which best summed them up is good-heartedness – both in the main characters, and in the author’s handling of them. There are five in the series at present, but I see that 6 and 7 are listed on the publisher’s website, which is good news. My favourite character so far is Gil’s sister, Kate, and I hope she will put in further appearances – apparently, the author likes her too, so the chances are good. Oh, and the dog, Socrates…


  1. Another book to seek out. Thankyou!

  2. I haven't come across this series, but of course you've roused my interest with this post, not to mention the Rosslyn connection (as you know I visited it earlier this year - may go again this month when we're back visiting our son in Scotland).

  3. I'm delighted if I've roused your interests! I was sad to learn from your post, Margaret, that photography is no longer possible in the chapel, because I had planned to go back with more time and a better camera than I had on my last visit.

  4. This sounds an interesting series. As they're fairly recent books I may even be able to get them at the library, although I'll probably find books 1-3 have already been sold and I'll have to start with four!

  5. This is probably really silly but - do they speak in dialect? I have a hell of a time reading books in accents with which I'm not quite familiar. It's why I can never get past the beginning part of Wuthering Heights without wanting to pull out my eyeballs.

  6. Isn't it frustrating that libraries sell the earlier books in a series! There are so many that I have started part way through - but this series is one where I wanted to go back and read the earlier ones.

    Jenny, they do, quite a lot of the time, but I think it is usually clear from the context what a word means, or a synonym is used a few lines later. The only time it might be difficult is in St Mungo's Robin, where one of the characters speaks a different dialect from everyone else, but then, the whole point is that none of them understand him! It would be interesting to know what English readers make of them, though, because I suspect they have sold better in Scotland.

    I have the same problem with Wuthering Heights, but it's nothing to do with the dialect!

  7. You are so bad for my TB pile! I have added the first four of this series, which I had never heard of, to try to find at my library. I've been to Edinburgh, and was struck by the dark and gloomy Old Town, and I really like that this is set in the medieval ages. Thank you for writing about them!