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Category Archive for 'Scotland'

Everyone is familiar with the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Watson. In this book, however, Conan Doyle does not appear as an author inventing a story, however clever and astute those novels may be. Here, in a beautifully presented and carefully developed study of a murder case from 1908, Conan Doyle becomes a participant in the real life events. Like Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle must carefully examine all aspects of a confusing case, the motivations behind the actions of all the people involved in it, and the end results, even when those differ from what he believes they should have been. Conan Doyle becomes human here, a man involved in trying to help an immigrant he believes has been used as a pawn by the police and public officials, one who has been the victim of false testimony by “witnesses,” and one who will eventually serve eighteen years of a life sentence before he is released from Peterhead Prison where he has spent his life at hard labor, mining granite. Conan Doyle was largely responsible for his release.

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Alan Parks lived for years in Glasgow, Scotland, the place where he has set his debut novel – and the same place where revered author William McIlvanney set his three famed Laidlaw novels between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. McIlvanney, credited as the founder of “Tartan noir,” casts a wide shadow with his Scottish writing, not only as a novelist, but also as a poet, a writer of literary fiction, a journalist, and a writer of screenplays, and recent publishers and critics have drawn comparisons between McIlvanney and Parks, whose style, when examined, is quite different in approach. It is 1973, and Det. Harry McCoy, just thirty, has been summoned to Barlinnie Prison, a Victorian building which houses many more prisoners than it was ever built for. “No wonder the whole prison stank. The smell of overflowing slop buckets and stale sweat was so thick it caught in the back of your throat as soon as the big doors opened; stuck to your clothes when you left.” He is meeting Howie Nairn, a convict confined to the Special Unit who wants to tell him that a girl named Lorna will be murdered the next day. All he knows about her is that she works in a “posh restaurant,” possibly Malmaison, and “someone’s gonnae do her tomorrow.” He doesn’t know her last name, but he feels that if he can do a favor for McCoy that his own position in jail might improve. What follows is an examination of the depths of Glasgow during the 1970s, when the city was dying and its poor were often desperate.

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Written as a biography, not of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life but of the specific influences on his life which led to his successful creation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as fictional heroes, Michael Sims presents a fully documented and carefully researched study of Arthur Conan Doyle and how he eventually achieved success as the author of the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes novels. Doyle began his career as a novelist in 1886 in Edinburgh, Scotland, when he was only twenty-seven years old. In private medical practice in Portsmouth, England, at this time, Doyle had been out of medical school for five years, and as he had always enjoyed writing, he had been spending his spare time writing stories of mystery, adventure, and the supernatural as a way to augment his income. Focusing primarily on A Study In Scarlet, his first novel, written in 1887, Sims documents how Doyle made the detective’s methods unique for the time, and, in the process, made his mysteries huge successes. Five years after this novel, Doyle was able to begin writing full-time. Great and unusual information here shows how one man became a success in this genre.

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On the surface, The Illuminations, the fifth novel by Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan, appears to be a simple story about Captain Luke Campbell, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and his grandmother, Anne Quirk, with whom he has always been particularly close. Luke has returned from the fighting with issues which prevent him from becoming close to those around him, perhaps reflecting some aspects of PTSD. His beloved grandmother Anne, now eighty-two, is staying at a co-operative living facility on the west coast of Scotland, where the other residents and a caring staff are trying to keep her from harm as her developing dementia begins to become dangerous. A former art photographer, whose work has recently interested a group which hopes to present a retrospective showing, Anne spent time in Canada, New York, Glasgow, and eventually Blackpool, before she mysteriously stopped doing any photography in 1963 when she was in her early thirties. Luke, whose mother Alice’s issues have always prevented her from becoming personally connected with her son, has come to Scotland after the war to try to help Anne. Packed full of thoughtful imagery, well-developed characterizations, subtle changes which reveal the longings of the heart, and actions which each character hopes will inspire new beginnings, The Illuminations lives up to its title.

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You have to give Jack Laidlaw credit. He does see himself as others see him, and his life definitely does lack continuity. In this third novel of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, published in 1991, after Laidlaw (1977) and The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), the main character, a detective with the Glasgow police, is divorced, alienated from his teenage children, at a crisis in his relationship with a new woman, and addicted to the possibilities of escape through alcohol. Now he has learned that his troubled younger brother Scott, a teacher, has died in a pedestrian accident, his life “snuffed out on the random number plate of a car,” and Laidlaw is about ready to “shut up shop on [his] beliefs and hand in [his] sense of morality at the desk. The world was a bingo stall,” a conclusion which depresses him beyond words. He is convinced that Scott’s death must mean more than it seems to mean, and he feels an inexplicable sense of guilt. Requesting a week’s time off from the job, he decides to investigate Scott’s death in an effort to learn how it happened and if it was truly random. Despite the large number of characters and the complex interrelationships among them, the novel provides a perfect ending, tying up the details of the themes and the action at the same time that it suggests a memorable coda: “And the meek shall inherit the earth, but not this week.” Outstanding and memorable, a classic.

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