LinlithgowLiteratureLothian LifeReview

Death of a Chief by Douglas Watt: review

By 22 May 2012No Comments

Douglas Watt lives in Linlithgow with his wife Julie and their three children. He is the author of The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of Nations, a history of the Darien Disaster and Parliamentary Union between Scotland and England as well as a published poet. Douglas Watt has now turned to fiction.  His recent, and now reissued, first novel, Death of a Chief, (Luath, RPP£6.99) is the promised first in a series of pre-Enlightenment crime novels, featuring John MacKenzie, a Gaelic-speaking and widowed Edinburgh Advocate of Highland family with a forensic mind and melancholic tendencies.
The scene isEdinburghin 1686.  James VII and II is on the throne.  Highlandand Lowland Scotland are bitterly divided.  Religion also separates the powerful into warring factions.  Sir Lachlan MacLean, an impoverished Highland laird, with a Royalist history, has died inEdinburghin mysterious circumstances.  His death is a result of poison but is it murder or is it suicide?  MacLean had substantial debts and countless enemies.  MacKenzie and his douceclerk and aspiring Notary, the young Lowlander, Davie Scougall, investigate.
At one level this is Ian Rankin meets Sir Walter Scott (but without the academic monologues): dastardly deeds, men and women with twisted motives, dynastic struggles, bitter religious factionalism, all leavened with some hints of romance, but the essence of the tale remains the mystery of MacLean’s death and its unravelling.  The first half of the narrative is set inEdinburghand its surroundings and although the streets and localities are nominally recognisable, this is a foetid, pre-New Town city.  The Nor’ Loch fills what is now the Waverley Station and its railway approaches, and the second awful murder of the story is concluded on its banks.
Although the city that is portrayed is almost mediaeval in its architecture and sanitation, it is already a bustling city of law and was then still a parliamentary capital.  Business and political chicanery advanced hand-in-hand.  (Plus çe change!)  Much of the story centres round the rivalries and ambitions within the great legal families. There are also however diversions from the city, to Colinton and Currie and to the fine houses and gardens which were beginning to be developed by the landed classes, and indeed by the legal dynasties, in the late seventeenth century.
But the scene changes as Sir Lachlan’s cortege leaves the capital to return to hisHighlandseat.MacKenzie and Scrougall accompany it, convinced that the death was murder and committed to uncovering the perpetrator.
In that eventful journey, the Gael, MacKenzie, is well-matched to the context but naïve young Scougall, who comes out trumps in the end, has to realign all his Presbyterian prejudices as he and MacKenzie are kidnapped by lawless caterans and rescued by equally lawless MacGregors.  Suspicions are aroused by almost every character in the plot and Watt maintains the suspense to the end.
In many ways this is a refreshingly old-fashioned tale, a rollicking good read, which gallops along at a fine pace.  It also captures, in the characters and their concerns, the real historical conflicts of the epoch it portrays.  If the two investigators are not yet totally rounded characters that may well be remedied as the series continues.  How will the Episcopalian MacKenzie and the Presbyterian Scougall cope with the arrival of William and Mary?  Will theUnionof the Parliaments offer new opportunities for corruption and crime and opportunities also for MacKenzie and Scougall to uncover the perfidies of that ‘parcel of rogues in a nation’?  Will Scougall scale the ladder, either professionally or by a romantic link with his master’s daughter?
 
 
The above article was first published in Lothian Life on 22 May 2012: http://www.lothianlife.co.uk/2012/05/death-of-a-chief/
The following shorter version was published in The Black Bitch, June 2012:
Historian and poet , Douglas Watt lives in Linlithgow with his wife Julie and their three children.  He has now published his first novel, Death of a Chief, (Luath, RPP£6.99), featuring  John MacKenzie, a Gaelic-speaking Edinburgh Advocate with a forensic mind.
It is Edinburgh in 1686.  Highland and Lowland Scotland are divided.  Sir Lachlan MacLean, an impoverished Highland chieftain has died mysteriously as a result of poison: is it murder or suicide?  MacLean had countless debts and enemies.  MacKenzie and his clerk, the young Lowlander, Davie Scougall, investigate.
This is Ian Rankin meets Sir Walter Scott: dastardly deeds, twisted motives, dynastic struggles, all leavened with hints of romance; but the core remains the mystery of MacLean’s death.  The story starts Edinburgh and although the localities are nominally recognisable, this is a pre-New Town city.  The Nor’ Loch fills the valley below the Castle, and the story’s second murder is concluded on its banks.
It is already however a bustling legal city and was then still a parliamentary capital.  Business and political chicanery went hand-in-hand.  But the scene changes.  Sir Lachlan’s cortege leaves for his Highland seat.  MacKenzie and Scrougall accompany it, committed to uncovering the perpetrator.
The Gael, MacKenzie, is well-matched to that eventful journey but the naïve Scougall, who comes out trumps in the end, has to realign all his Presbyterian prejudices.  Lawless caterans and equally lawless MacGregors battle over our heroes.  Suspicions are aroused by almost every character and Watt maintains the suspense to the end.
This is a refreshingly old-fashioned tale, a rollicking good read, which captures, in the characters and their concerns, the historical conflicts of its epoch.  If the two investigators are not yet totally rounded characters that may well be remedied as the series continues.

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