Friday, April 21, 2017

The Reek of Red Herrings - Catriona McPherson

Today a deviation from the usual Friday's Forgotten Book and instead a review of a neglected modern mystery writer in honor of upcoming Malice Domestic Mystery Convention that I will be attending next weekend. In a rare instance of acting responsibly I chose to read a handful of the books nominated for Malice's Agatha Awards. Some of them were not at all to my liking and I abandoned them quickly. But I was very glad I chose to read Catriona McPherson's books. She knows how to write a mystery and I think those of you who have never heard of her might want to know that her latest is one of the best traditional mystery novels I've read in a very long time.

The Reek of Red Herrings (2014, US edition 2016) is in essence a missing person story but not without an element of a macabre whodunit plot. Dandy Gilver and Alec Osborne, McPherson's private detective series characters, are hired by fish merchant Mr. Birchwood to find out why several of his herring barrels included some unexpected ingredients -- body parts. They need to go to Gamrie, where the fish barrels were purchased, and to prevent any others from being sold. But at all costs they cannot let anyone know why they are in the town or that Mr. Birchwood has hired them. He is trying his best to prevent a horrible scandal from ruining his business and this is why he refuses to let the police know of the secret of the herring barrels. Of course if they also manage to uncover the identity of the dismembered man more power to them. That part of the mystery doesn't seem to concern Birchwood as much as preserving his reputation and saving his business.

Dandy and Alec make their way to Gamrie in the guise of philologists researching the local patois along with Scottish folklore. They hope by pretending to gather anecdotes and cataloging the unusual Scots vocabulary they will also be able to get the Gamrie people to talk openly about the events of the past few days. They get more than they bargained for when over the course of their many interviews they learn of several strangers who turned up in town and then suddenly disappeared. The mystery of the body parts and the identity of that man becomes complicated when the a total of seven missing men of various physical descriptions turn up. Which one of those missing men could be the one who was chopped up as a herring garnish?

The story is an engaging mix of utterly wacky characters and unnerving menace. You'll meet all the fisherman's wives and daughters, a couple of eccentric taxidermists, and learn more than you ever expected about life in a Scottish fishing village, circa 1930. In addition McPherson finds ways to incorporate a variety of unusual Scottish traditions like handfasting and the accompanying marriage rituals like feet washing and feet mucking and the practice of dousing a bride-to-be with ginger infused mucky milk to prevent Auld Clootie (the Devil) from finding her attractive and spiriting her away prior to her wedding. In their disguise as "language experts" McPherson allows the story sometimes to become overburdened with Scots dialect making the use of a glossary almost necessary. She does allow the local characters to translate their lingo for Dandy and Alec, but not as often as I wish she had. Much of the meaning needs to be gleaned through context. Still, all of it is utterly fascinating for anyone interested in learning about fading culture and mores. Notably the discussion of "teenames", a peculiar nicknaming tradition necessary to keep distinct all similarly named residents, is one facet that astute readers ought to pay close attention to for it has one of the best hidden clues key to solving the many mysteries uncovered by our sleuthing duo.

If you are familiar with McPherson's work then you will know that she has a penchant for Scottish Gothicism. I get a sense of Stevenson and Buchan sneaking their way into her narratives. She makes excellent use of creepy landscapes, eerie natural landmarks, abandoned and dilapidated estate houses, and terrifying meteorological events. Most of the Dandy Gilver books are set in the late 1920s, (though ...Red Herrings is the first to take place in 1930) and take advantage of dialectical language plus a variety of Scottish legends which are always intrinsic to the her intriguing and intricate plots. Compare these with her stand alone books, all set in present day, and you find the same motifs and techniques employed. The stand alone mysteries also give her an opportunity to explore the darker side of her imagination. The Child Garden (2015), for example, is just as macabre as The Reek of Red Herrings making use of some supernatural legends and lore to great effect.

While the Dandy Gilver books lean heavily towards a lighthearted vein generously sprinkled with a sardonic humor they do have their share of harrowing scenes and moments of gravitas. The climax of The Reek of Red Herrings is suitably neo-Gothic with a wild winter snowstorm complete with toppling trees and damaging floods all leading to a cataclysm on an epic scale. The finale reminded me of one of those act of God climaxes that occur so frequently in the detective novels of Lee Thayer and Carolyn Wells.

Most importantly to fans of traditional mysteries is the structure of the novel itself as well as her skill with the multi-layered plot. McPherson has a deft way of dropping clues into the narrative and has some subtle methods of foreshadowing that will help readers discover along with Dandy and Alec just what all the multiple mysteries add up to. It is rare that I encounter a modern mystery writer who still honors the traditions of the fair play detective novel and can do it so well. McPherson does an admirable job in laying down the groundwork necessary for clever readers to arrive at the solution almost at the same time as Dandy does. I was impressed with the talent and skill displayed in this genuine detective novel. I hope she continues to find new ways to bamboozle and thrill her readers in all her future mysteries.

UPDATE:  The Reek of Red Herrings deservedly won the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery at Malice Domestic 29 on April 29, 2017.  All the more reason to read it, IMO.

9 comments:

  1. A pleasure to know someone still knows how to do it.

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  2. Sorry, but as much as I wanted to like this, I only made it about 40 pages in. I also tried her QUIET NEIGHBORS and got further, but not to the finish. This author isn't for me, I guess.

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    1. The only criticisms I see in online reviews are her about her "verbose" writing style. While this may be true to a certain extent, I tend to think people who rail about that kind of prose are just lazy readers who can't handle rich and dense writing. Too bad she's not for you. I'm not so keen on her replication of a 1920s run-on sentence style in the Dandy Gilver books. Sometimes entire paragraphs are one sentence which I have a big problem with even with writers who actually wrote in the 1920s. Somehow I manage not to let it irritate me by ignoring her love of the semi-colon and breaking up the run-ons into separate sentences. In effect, editing her books in my head as I read them.

      I think her plots are very well done, truly enviable work. She writes detective fantasy novels rife with absurd characters and preposterous circumstances that I find entertaining and beguiling. For imaginative plotting alone I'd rate this one and THE CHILD GARDEN 9 out of 10. I think they are that well done despite her minor stylistic faults and punctuation eccentricities.

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  3. So glad you enjoyed this, and now can go on to read others. I love her books. When I first saw the 1st Dandy book I was very suspicious - it looked so much like a certain kind of bistorical cozy, with a brave sleuth, a comic maid, cheery smiling servants. But it's so different. As well as all the positive attributes you mention (and I agree with you completely) I love it that she does NOT give her characters modern-day attitudes to make them more likeable. So few authors of historicals can resist the temptation: all those sleuths who are feminist, pro-gay, feminist, and very understanding about mental health issues. Pure fantasyland. But, eg, in one of her books McPherson has Dandy being very cutting about WW1 deserters. I can remember my shock on reading that - no other modern author that I can think of would ever make a heroine say that...

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    1. I had been suspicious of this series for years and avoided them. The protagonist's name and the cartoonish book covers signaled to me exactly what you wrote above. So glad these books surprised me by not being like all those other "cozy" mysteries I intensely dislike.

      I like that the books stick to the era. I also have a problem with the contemporary mindset that pops up in most historical fiction. In the McPherson book I'm reading now, A BOTHERSOME NUMBER OF CORPSES, there is a lot of xenophobia and bigotry exhibited towards the Italian fish and chips seller Giuseppe Aldo. The headmistress is so anti Italian she gives his daughter an Anglicized name ("Much more suitable.") and most of the students don't know her real first name. Perfect touch.

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  4. I am wary of picking up a contemporary author because eventually their books fall flat for me but you make this one sound interesting, John. I'll check for her books in the libraries I frequent.

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  5. I love these books, especially the banter between Dandy and Alec. I also like that I know most of the settings. I'm astonished that some people have complained that her writing is verbose, they obviously haven't tried Sir Walter Scott!

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  6. I don't mind verbose at all, John. In fact, if well done and interesting, I prefer it to the more brief sentencing of 'modern' detective writing. But then, in truth, this IS modern detective writing, since it is being done today. Right? So, I'll take a chance, and get a couple of her books and see what's what. Thanks for the recommend. I would RARELY try a contemporary cozy because most of them are just awkward, lackluster and completely lacking in charm. HOWEVER, having said that, I'm currently reading a contemporary 'cozy' by Julia Buckley and enjoying it very much so far. Stay tuned. I'm also, thanks to Neer, reading an Ethel Lina White book which so far I'm finding intriguing if slightly bewildering and even bizarre.

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  7. This sounds really good - thanks John. And at least I reckon even I should be able to track this one down!

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