Hazel McHaffie

My Lord John

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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Unseen unsung dedication

I was a teenager when I discovered Georgette Heyer, and by the age of 24, I had acquired most of her Regency novels from secondhand book shops  – lighthearted romances set in a particular period of history. A shilling each, as I recall! Sadly, back then, I had no notion of the background research required to make a period novel flow effortlessly. Nor had I recognised that the author was only a lass of seventeen herself when she first began writing.

Best known for her Regency tales, she wrote forty-two romance and contemporary novels, as well as eleven detective stories, relying on her barrister husband to supply the plots for the latter.

I have just found a copy of the last novel this prolific author worked on, My Lord John, and learned that Heyer’s own favourite period in history was actually the Middle Ages: especially late 14th-early 15th Century. She planned to write a trilogy set in this time frame with John, Duke of Bedford, the younger brother of Henry V, as its central protagonist, calculating it would take her a period of five years to accomplish, but circumstances contrived to thwart her good intentions, and she only managed to complete a third of the whole project. In the published version an historical note has been added to round out the story and there has been some editing to present the unfinished tale in this form.

But what is most impressive is her husband’s account of the background work Georgette put into her writing.

Her research was enormous and meticulous. She was a perfectionist. She studied every aspect of the period – history, wars,social conditions, manners and customs, costume, armour, heraldry, falconry and the chase. She drew genealogies of all the noble families of England ( with their own armorial bearings painted on each) for she believed that the clues to events were to be found in their relationships. She had indexed files for every day of the year for the forty years she was covering with all noteworthy events duly entered on their dates. She learnt to read medieval English almost as easily as modern and amassed a large vocabulary. One summer we toured the Scottish-English borderlands, learning the country and visiting seventy-five castles and twenty-three abbeys (or their ruins). Her notes fill volumes.’

Wow! Now that’s dedication to one’s art if ever I heard it. And how many readers appreciate that unseen slog behind her entertaining books? Most like me, I’m sure, just love her feel-good tales as pure escapism.

‘Entertaining’ is not a word I’d use for this last book, however. In My Lord John the cast of characters (with their connections and titles) alone runs to 3 pages!

The language is of the period, the terms for clothes, furniture, food, customs, games, are unfamiliar – indeed, there’s a four-page glossary included. Titles, honours, dukedoms, even crowns, are lost and won on rumour, pique and expediency. Princelings are no older than my teenage grandson; brides are betrothed in the cradle, handed over to their husbands before they reach adolescence. Life, loyalty and allegiance are cheap. We hear today of our own Queen conferring titles, appointing knights to the Order of the Garter, granting folk castles and estates; in the 1500s these actions carried grave responsibilities, oaths were sworn, battles fought, rebellions were to be overcome.

Harsh times. Complex relationships with so many political and strategic as well as domestic alliances being forged. Heyer is to be commended for her diligence and mastery of the period, but given her legendary easy-reading style, I was rather disappointed by the lack of sparkle and pace in this one. It feels to me bogged down with scholarship. Definitely not an easy read; only my stubbornness made me persist to the bitter end. And even so I certainly wouldn’t fare well in the Mastermind black chair on the subject of Lord John of Bedford!

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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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