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Pauline's Fantasy Reviews

Reviews of fantasy books, plus some mystery, sci-fi and literary works, and my random thoughts on book-related matters.

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Stephen Deas
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The Sound of Shiant

The Sound of Shiant - Hereward L M Proops It's hard to know how to categorise this. It's historical fiction, certainly, and it's a murder mystery complete with investigating detective, and there's enough paranormal flavour to make it (I suppose) fantasy, so take your pick. The setting is Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides, and the dialogue is littered with plausible Scottish dialect and Gaelic, but don't let that put you off, because it's all very easy to read.

The plot is simple. It's 1882, and policeman Edmund Forrester is asked to investigate the disappearance of a young man from a fishing boat. The boat owner swears he fell overboard during a storm, but the victim's parents think there's more to it and the incident occurred in the Sound of Shiant, a mysterious body of water near the Shiant Islands hedged about with rumour and myth. Naturally, as soon as the hero begins to investigate, he's faced with opposition and downright obstruction from most of the locals, with a few more helpful souls and even just a teaspoonful of romance (sort of). Oh, and there’s a comic relief sidekick, as well.

My biggest problem with the book is the historical details. I don't know what Stornoway was like in 1882, so I'll assume the author's done his research there (although I did wonder a bit at the idea of pubs with booths), and London's Metropolitan Police did indeed have a Criminal Investigation Department and a small number of Detective Inspectors at that time (although only just). And all the characters seemed to smoke cigarettes constantly which seemed a bit unlikely. It was the divorce that got me. Forrester is divorced from his wife, yet he attends her second wedding, which takes place in church with the bride wearing a white dress amidst the usual celebrations. Why did they divorce? Because he devoted too much attention to his job.

Now divorce in 1882 was a very rare business indeed (a few hundred cases a year), and involved proving in court adultery, cruelty, desertion, bigamy or something equally major (and no, being obsessive about your work was not one of the allowable causes). There was always blame (one spouse had to sue the other for divorce), and even a hundred years later it was incredibly unusual and stigmatising for both parties. To this day it remains difficult to remarry in church (in England, anyway; Scotland is a little different). As for the white dress - you had to be rich to wear anything so impractical (even for a first wedding). It's not that any of this was actually impossible, I don't suppose, but the implausibility of it grated on me, and I almost gave up at that point.

What kept me going was the setting, the beautifully described Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides, or nowadays Na h-Eileanan Siar) and the waters round about. There was Gaelic and dialect scattered about everywhere, which seemed to my inexpert ears to sound exactly right. My Gaelic is negligible, but even so I recognised a few phrases and even spotted the odd occasion where a character mistranslated for the non-Gaelic-speaking main character.

Unfortunately, a nice way with language isn’t enough, and the book was a disappointment to me on almost every other level. The murder mystery wasn’t any mystery at all, the supernatural aspects were revealed in the prologue and the ‘hero’ is one of the most uninteresting and unlikeable I’ve ever come across. Determination to get to the bottom of things is a fine quality in a detective, but in this case it manifests as an aggressive refusal to give up, wilful disregard for his own or anyone else’s safety and some breathtakingly stupid decisions. Plus he decided at an early stage that the supernatural element was involved, even when he was told repeatedly that such things belonged to mythology. It’s an odd thing when the sophisticated English detective is more superstitious than the traditional islanders. A strange book. I couldn’t get past the improbabilities, but for those with a better developed ability to suspend disbelief this is a perfectly readable little story. Two stars for the atmospheric setting and the Gaelic.