Beneath the Abbey Wall by A.D. Scott is the third historical Scottish mystery in the Highland Gazette series (available November 6, 2012.)
On a dark, damp Sunday evening, a man taking a shortcut home sees a hand reaching out in supplication from a bundle of sacks. In an instant he knows something terrifying has happened.
In the Highlands in the late 1950s, much of the local newspaper’s success was due to Mrs. Smart, the no-nonsense office manager who kept everything and everyone in line. Her murder leaves her colleagues in shock and the Highland Gazette office in chaos. Joanne Ross, a budding reporter and shamefully separated mother, assumes Mrs. Smart’s duties, but an intriguing stranger provides a distraction not only from the job and the investigation but from everything Joanne believes in.
Beneath the Abbey Wall by A.D. Scott is the third book in a series featuring the staff of the Highland Gazette, a fictional newspaper in 1950s Scotland. Scott uses an omniscient eye to give a rounded view of the crime from a wide range of local characters, among them the newspaper’s expatriate Glaswegian editor, McAllister; the matriarch of a Traveler family, Jenny McPhee; and female reporter Joanne Ross. The variety of voices has the happy result of making it easy to pick up a lot about the different characters if, like me, you’re new to the series.
Few of the characters seem truly happy, even setting aside the sad circumstances of the murder. However, that’s what makes them all so very intriguing. Each new bit of information, like the lead paragraph in a newspaper story, makes you want to read on and find out more. What I especially liked was that Scott used this technique, of feeding information in small bites, even with the murder victim. She’s never shown alive, but through the eyes of others we see that the repercussions of her actions affect a whole host of people who interacted with her. And we’re also shown how those left behind are trying to deal with her loss; grief for her will linger.
“Mr. McAllister, do you recognize the deceased?” the inspector asked in a formal policeman’s voice.
“I do. It is, was, Mrs. Smart, business manager at the Highland Gazette. I don’t remember her first name.” As he said this he felt a rush of guilt. This was the woman he had worked beside for a year and a half. This was the woman who made sure the Gazette functioned, the woman who was as essential to the newspaper as the printing press.
…He wanted to remember her differently—alive, clearheaded, calm, an anchor in the newsroom, a middle-aged woman, once pretty, who had grown into a handsome understated elegance. He wanted his vision of her, hair in a chignon, never a stray strand, no makeup and the only touch of vanity a perfume that Joanne had assured him was called Joy, to remain intact, not sullied by the sight of her in death.
… He had always thought her name appropriate—Mrs. Smart—the model of an efficient office manager; quiet, well-mannered, capable, able to grasp his new ideas for the Gazette and implement them without fuss. She was fine-looking in an elderly, middle-class way.
…She was a private woman. I’ve worked with her since I came to the north from Glasgow, I liked her, I respected her, but I could never say I knew her. She was always Mrs. Smart to everyone—even to Don, but I should know her first name…She seldom offered an opinion until asked, did not gossip, and kept her private life private.
…never flapping, never angry, her steel-grey hair never out of place, lipstick never smudged, the way she would look down at her papers, tidy them into neat stacks before picking out the relevant page and smiling at the corners of her mouth—the only indication she had something to say.
Of course, this being a mystery, her private life does not long remain private. Different characters, all trying to find her murderer, uncover the stages of her life, almost like flipping the pages of a book that has a new surprise in every chapter.
In many ways, Mrs. Smart is the most interesting character in the novel, because the whole story is her story, uncovered layer by layer by her former colleagues at the newspaper. Thus it’s all the more satisfying for the reader when at last the characters are able to find closure.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief, “Under Her Uniform”, is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.
Read all posts by Victoria Janssen for Criminal Element.