Sunday, 19 July 2015

Just (another) book review

I love  Iain M. Banks' Culture Novels. Read every one, often twice. Consider Phlebas at least three times. And I still cry at the end.

But, if you were being hyper (favourite Banks word) critical there is a certain repetitiveness about the plot(s) as the novels continue. Mere (very future) pieces of flesh and blood living out the narrative at the indulgence of more immortal artificial intelligences.

Nonetheless you keep reading, certainly because the storytelling is so good but also because of the added extras of worlds so different, so fantastically different, from our own that you revel in their description.

To that degree Banks was a true descendent of Sir Walter Scott, who described a historical time and place as precisely as Banks described a future time and place, Great plots but with an added bonus.

Well, now we have Andrew Nicoll. I have to confess he is a pal of mine. And we now have his fourth novel  The secret life and  mysterious death of Miss Jean Milne.                                         .

It is an odd synthesis of Banks and Scott. A historical novel, or more properly novella, set in an almost recognisable Scotland of our, almost, living memory but then describing that "almost recognisable" place as if it was one of Banks ring worlds on the edge of the known universe.

Broughty Ferry, the posh suburb of Dundee, where, in 1912, Police Sergeant Fraser of the Broughty Ferry Constabulary (total compliment 16) suddenly finds himself a key investigator, or at least key witness to the investigation, of the murder, in her own home, of the local spinster Miss Jean Milne.

As a police procedural, of time and place, the book more than holds its own. The same again as a (mere) whodunit. But this is not the book's real achievement. That is not so much to conjure up as to recreate a lost Scotland. A Scotland where professional men were invariably "Mister", unless they were "Doctor", even among themselves. Where Policemen always told the truth, no matter how inconvenient. Where the "cars" (trams) were the height of transport sophistication and the electric telephone as wondrous a thing as the modern internet.   Where local rivalry and distinction, in this case between Broughty Ferry and Dundee, but just as easily as between Glasgow and Rutherglen or Edinburgh and Leith, was a matter of almost vital importance to the junior partner involved.

I won't even really start to summarise the plot, for the book itself moves forward quickly in that regard. There's a murder, no obvious perpetrator, then too obvious a perpetrator and then.........

But the plot is not the star of this production. That lies as I say in its evocation of different but vaguely familiar world. I paid 49p for it on the Kindle. Or 9/11d in the old money. Worth every penny.


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