Monday, 6 December 2010

Hue and Cry by Shirley McKay

I get an inordinate amount of pleasure from discovering a new mystery series. I’m not absolutely certain why this is: something to do with the way in which the reader is drawn quickly into the story and the knowledge that it will end with the necessary ends tied up neatly, but enough left loose to provide a way into the next one, perhaps? However, after I’d read my way through Brother Cadfael by the mid-1990s, library visits always began by returning a batch of imitations which had been found wanting.

Until recently, the only series I’d found which came anywhere close to satisfying were Fidelis Morgan’s – which started with Unnatural Fire and recounted the riotous adventures of Anatasia Ashby de la Zouche, Baroness Penge, Countess of Clapham and her maid Alpiew – and the famous one by Lindsay Davis starring M. Didius Falco, informer to the Emperor Vespasian and harassed paterfamilias. The library shelves offered more, but most of them left me disappointed, usually because I felt that setting and characterisation were lacking. So recent riches please me enormously and Catriona McPherson, Carola Dunn, Cora Harrison and Pat McIntosh all more than meet my requirements and I can imagine few greater treats than to settle down with a new book by any of those authors. (Nicola Upson and Jacqueline Winspear should get an honourable mention here.)

Hue and Cry, Shirley McKay’s first book about sixteenth-century St Andrews and lawyer Hew Cullan is another gem. In 1579 Hew has just returned to his home town from France, and he’s concerned to find his friend Nicholas not only ill but accused of murdering a student. In the small community that comprises town and gown Hew of course sets out to investigate, with the very necessary help of his sister Meg and physician Giles Locke, only to find that they are all at risk of bringing down the wrath of the Kirk on their heads.

What we have here is good plotting and characterisation, with the added interest of the technicalities of Scottish law which require extra ingenuity on the part of the author. There’s a leavening of humour (generally centring around the intractable horse Duns Scottis), and some period colour in the shape of James VI, just 14 here, but later notable for his views on, amongst other things, witchcraft. Language is used beautifully – there’s no requirement to understand dialect but the use of metre captivated me: the flow of dialogue often falling apparently naturally into the rhythm of the common metre which was to become the characteristic of the Scottish Psalter 50 years later. I thought, too, that McKay handled the thorny issue of modern sensibilities in period characters with great deftness

My only criticism? No map. I want a map. That apart, a stunning debut, and one to read again. The second book, Fate and Fortune is also out, with a third on its way.


  1. I'd seen this in the bookshop but wasn't sure whether to try it. Looks like I may have to now:) I'm partial to Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew mysteries set in 14th century Cambridge. Have you tried them?

  2. I love historic mysteries. Thanks for the heads up on this one!

  3. I'd forgotten those - they are good, aren't they? And of course C.J.Samson, I like them too.

  4. I am so picky about my historical mysteries -- actually, mysteries of any stripe. But I love them when I find them! I'll have to try this.

  5. I am enoying a Pyke novel (London 1844) at the mo but this looks wonderful. Another one to drop heavy hints for!

  6. I used to dismiss historical crime without a second glance, but up I picked up the first Maisie Dobbs book in the library, loved it and slowly I have been drawn in.

    I've been looking at Ellis Peters books in the library lately and wondering is the first in the series will ever turn up, or if I should place an order.

    And now I'm going to be checking the catalogue for this one.

  7. Discovering a fabulous new author is one of life's greatest pleasures! Glad you found a new one.

  8. Have you tried the Adelia Aguilar mysteries by Ariana Franklin, Geranium Cat? There are four so far and I think they're probably at the top of my list of historical mysteries. Do try them if you haven't come across them. (The author used to write as Diana Norman, and is the wife of film critic Barry Norman)

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  10. Jenclair, hope you'll enjoy them.

    Jenny, me too! but this is good.

    Juxtabook, London 1844 sounds okay? :-)

    Fleur, I find it so frustrating when the library doesn't have the first one (and it never does...)

    Dave and Tami, thanks for stopping by!

    Nicola, how remiss of me! I do like them, and have one out of the library out the moment. I like her other historical novels too, she always makes me laugh. I went o hear her speak one year at the Edinburgh Book Festival, so I shouldn't have forgotten.