Hazel McHaffie

Mark Douglas-Home

A Scottish mystery

OK, duty done! I duly persisted to the end of Georgette Heyer’s mighty tome on Lord John of Bedford. So I’ve earned the pleasure of reading the book I was itching to get into: The Woman who Walked into the Sea, bought in the Outer Hebrides last month. And memories of those endless golden beaches, turquoise seas, alluring bays, came flooding back.

The author, Mark Douglas-Home, – yep, he is indeed the nephew of the former prime-minister, Alec Douglas-Home – is a journalist turned author, with an interesting career start: as a student he edited a University anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa and got himself deported! Now there’s tale to tell!! He now lives more quietly in Edinburgh and this is his second novel.

The story’s set on the North West coast of Scotland where, on 9 September 1983, a heavily pregnant Megan Bates walked across the sands of a remote beach into the cold Atlantic sea, and kept on walking. She was 33 years old and was wearing a loose white dress and a raffia hat with a broad red ribbon round it. Or so it was said. But the day before the sighting of Megan walking to her death, a baby girl was abandoned at the main door of Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, just before midnight, in a cardboard box, wrapped only in towels. There was no note, nothing to identify her apart from an envelope taped to the side of the box containing a brooch featuring violets, pinned to a small rectangular section cut from a green woollen cardigan. Could this have been Megan’s illegitimate child? Because of the brooch, the staff named the baby Violet.

26 years later, following a tip off from a social worker from Inverness, Violet Wells is searching for clues as to her biological mother’s life and intentions. Her journey takes her to the island where Megan lived and died. But the good people of Poltown give her a strange reception: there’s a local beach-combing farmer who says he loved Megan but who was accused by the police of killing her; a bitter elderly lady who was in service but has been soured by her treatment since the death of her employer; a stranger who attempts to abduct her. It seems the whole community is conspiring to keep its secrets buried and nothing is what it seems. Even Orasaigh Cottage, Megan’s rented home, is stripped of personality and bereft of any trace of her existence. And yet her possessions are preserved in a room in the ramshackle building belonging to a boy/man who believes her still alive.

Cal McGill is a private investigator and oceanographer brought in to locate things and people lost at sea, and currently not at all sure he does families any favours by doing so. He’s intrigued by this young woman who has suddenly left her flat in Glasgow and her four year old daughter, Anna, and come to this far corner, obsessed by her personal quest, reticent about sharing her own story. His knowledge of tides and flotsam makes him question the newspaper and police accounts of that time a quarter of a century ago. But his interest in this woman and her strange history soon leads to his personal safety being threatened as well as Violet’s.

Subtly, little by little, local characters let slip details and together Violet and Cal piece together a fragmented account – a tale of greed and jealousy, cover up and lies – until the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place and the ugly truth is revealed.

It’s been likened to a Ruth Rendell mystery. I wouldn’t personally rank it in that school of writing but I enjoyed the unravelling and of course, the exploration of the parent-child bond as well as the importance of knowing one’s roots; both slot neatly into my own current preoccupations.

A relaxing diversion before getting back into my own novel which is now on the downward slope to a conclusion. Very exciting to be counting down.

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Far from the madding crowd … there are books galore!

As I mentioned last week I’ve been on an escape-from-it-all break to the Outer Hebrides – namely Lewis, Harris and North Uist. The islands combine the bleakest most inhospitable moonscapes lashed by Atlantic storms, with the most inspirational idyllic beaches warmed by the balmy Gulf Stream. Historic Scotland have wisely snuck in to preserve ancient dwelling places and relics; the local communities have collaborated to preserve amenities and ways of life.

On the book front, Peter May’s trilogyThe Lewis Man, The Chessmen, The Blackhouse – set in the Hebrides, are on sale widely and tours are available tracing the steps of his protagonists. Putting the area on the literary map.

But one unexpected feature especially jumped out at me: secondhand books are everywhere! In the supermarkets, in regular shops, in craft-y places, in ferry terminals, in information centres … with simple notices requesting or just gently suggesting a donation be popped in an honesty box for a good cause. In spite of my laden shelves back at home, I couldn’t resist supporting this heart-warming and trusting approach. And given the struggles many islanders are contending with, it’s commendable that they’re so public spirited.

I also simply couldn’t resist buying one book at full price – The Woman who Walked into the Sea by journalist turned novelist Mark Douglas-Home  – it will always be associated with my 2018 trip to the outer islands. Skilled investigator Cal McGill explores what happened to Megan Bates, a 26-year-old woman who abandoned her baby on the steps of the local hospital before, next day walking into the cold ocean from a remote Scottish beach (yep, I can picture it vividly) and let the sea wash her away. Sounds like my kind of book. I really really really wanted to pitch into it immediately, but steeled myself to persist with the 79 characters in Georgette Heyer’s medieval novel, My Lord John, first – more of which anon. TWWWITS will be my reward for diligence and loyalty!!

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