Beneath the Abbey Wall is A.D. Scott's third mystery in a series that features employees of the Highland Gazette, a fictional newspaper set in the Scottish Highlands during the 1950s. Following A Small Death in the Great Glen (2010) and A Double Death on the Black Isle (2011), which hinged on crimes the staff reported, this latest installment hits closer to home. Mrs. Smart (neé Joyce Mackenzie), the inimitable office manager, is murdered, and Don McLeod, the deputy editor and Joyce's lover, is arrested despite seemingly little evidence. Editor-in-chief McAllister and Rob McLean, a twenty-two-year old reporter and the son of the local solicitor, rally to vindicate their colleague with the help of Jimmy McPhee, a local Traveller (see Beyond the Book). Together the men uncover a long list of secrets: about Joyce's family; the reason behind her marriage to Sergeant Major Smart, a wheelchair-bound veteran with an infamous temper; Joyce's ties to Jimmy's mother and "legendary storyteller" Jenny McPhee; the possibility of bigamy between some of the characters; and a child who was mistakenly abducted.
Scott weaves charged emotion into a well-paced novel that bridges the gap between British "gentleman detective" mysteries, in which characters such as Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, and Adam Dagliesh solve ingenious crimes and hardboiled police procedurals that suggest a bleaker view of humanity. By focusing on relatable characters who are affected by the murder rather than on the official investigation, Scott allows everyday life to inform the plot, and welcomes readers who prefer emphasis on story over more grisly, forensic analysis. Subplots on the romance between Joanne Ross (a reporter) and Neil Stewart (a scholar aiding the newspaper) as well as McAllister's unexpressed feelings toward Joanne particularly resound, not only for the respite they offer the characters from stress created by their co-worker's arrest, but for the ways in which Scott negotiates themes of doubt, obsession, and love. Murder and romance cleverly dovetail upon the discovery of Neil Stewart's connection to Joyce Mackenzie.
Few surprises emerge from the plot though. The suspects are staples of the genre, and are signaled clearly; and one particularly pivotal event, while not implausible, comes across as a little too tidy. Still, the central question to the crime, "Who are your people?" remains provocative enough to keep readers wondering how Scott resolves family problems. Her talent for imbuing mid-century men and women with courage and the conviction to set wrongs right make this a workplace mystery to relish, and a fascinating examination of long-held resentment.
This review is from the January 9, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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