Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical crime fiction has become a popular sub-genre of crime fiction, and it’s easy to see why. When it’s well-written, historical crime fiction gives the reader a real sense of another place and time, while still telling a taut mystery story. So today, let’s turn the spotlight backwards, so to speak, and take a close look at Shona MacLean’s debut historical mystery, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton.
The novel takes place in Banff, Scotland, in 1626. Two sisters, Mary and Janet Dawson, find a man lying in a gutter. At first they think he’s drunk, and rifle his pockets to take whatever money he has. They find nothing and are about to leave when he begs them for help. They quickly see that the man’s not drunk, but terribly ill. The sisters don’t want to call any attention to themselves; they’re both prostitutes, and neither has any desire to meet up with the local bailie. At the same time, though, they don’t want to leave a sick man alone in the gutter. So they do the best thing they can think of to do. They bring the man into a local classroom, hoping that he’ll be found and helped. Then they go on their way.
The schoolroom they choose is the classroom of Alexander Seaton, undermaster of the local grammar school. Seaton is a former candidate for the ministry who, because of a personal disgrace, is no longer eligible to take a pulpit. Bitter and guilty over what he sees as a personal failure, Seaton’s wrapped up in his own troubles. His self-imposed personal exile ends when the man the Dawson sisters left in his classroom dies. The man is Patrick Davidson, the apothecary’s assistant, a man Seaton knows well. Shortly after Davidson’s death, it becomes clear that he was poisoned. The most likely suspect for the murder is music master Charles Thom, Davidson’s successful rival for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. Thom is a good friend of Seaton’s so when he’s arrested for the murder, Seaton speaks up for him. It’s to no avail, though, and Thom is soon imprisoned. He begs Seaton to help him and clear his name, and Seaton agrees to do his best.
Step by step, Seaton begins to retrace Davidson’s last days and weeks and as he does so, he discovers that more than one person might have had a motive to kill the victim. For one thing, there’s evidence that Davidson might have been providing maps to Scotland’s enemy Spain, so that King Philip could reclaim Scotland for the Roman Catholic Church. If that’s the case, then there are several local people who might have wanted to murder him. And then there’s the enigmatic Marion Arbuthnott. She’s the subject of more than one rumour, including that she’s involved in witchcraft. Could she have killed Davidson? There are other suspects, too. As Seaton is exploring the various possibilities, there’s another death and this time, Charles Thom couldn’t possibly have killed the victim. While the second death clears Thom’s name more or less, it makes the mystery all the more confusing for Seaton. In his journey to the truth, Seaton finds out some things about his dead friend that he hadn’t known. He also re-discovers himself.
One of the important elements in this novel is of course the mystery that Seaton investigates. There are clues, suspects, witnesses and hidden secrets, and as Seaton uncovers the truth, we see how the puzzle fits together. The solution to the puzzle is believable and so is the way that Seaton finds out the truth.
The novel is also an historical novel, and MacLean takes the reader to 17th Century Scotland in many ways and gives the reader an authentic look at the traditions, mores and lifestyle of that time and place. For instance the murder method, the detection methods and the way in which the murder is solved all reflect that time period. Even the motive is a solid fit for the times. Here, as an example, is the way that Dr. Jaffray, the local physician, describes his findings:
“These are the findings of my examination of the corpse of Patrick Davidson….someone took the root of a small and beautiful flower and fed it to him. So lethal was it that it started to kill him before it ever reached his stomach, for there was little trace of it there…we found it in the vomit, Arbuthnott and I, before we ever had the barber help us open him up. We found elements of the root, pieces and two whole slices….”
The sub-plots, too, evoke the era. When Marion Arbuthnott dies, rumours spread that she was a witch, and her body is taken from the doctor’s home and burned at the stake. The fear and suspicion of anything that smacks of Roman Catholicism also runs through the novel and it also reflects the times. So does Seaton’s disgrace, which came about mostly because of a relationship he had with a young woman, a relationship that would not have the same negative consequences in today’s world.
The writing style and dialogue also reflect the era, but without being difficult for the modern reader to follow. Here, for instance, is a snippet of a conversation that Seaton has with Dr. Jaffray about the poisonous flower that killed Davidson:
“‘If anyone in the north of Scotland ever knew that flower it would have been James Cargill.’
‘But the doctor has been dead these ten years and more,’ I protested.
He brushed this aside. ‘It matters little. His notebooks were the most exact ever I saw…If his nephew has them, I trust you will manage to persuade him to lend us them awhile.’
‘I have no doubt. But how might they help?’
Jaffray muttered at my idiocy. ‘They will show us the flower…’”
The novel is told in first person, from the point of view of Alexander Seaton. Many people find that first-person narratives pull them out of the story. However, in this novel, that point of view is a solid fit to the story. It allows the reader to discover the truth as Seaton does, and this adds to the suspense. It also allows for the very interesting sub-plot involving Seaton’s own personal problems and the unexpected solution he finds to them. Finally, the first-person narrative gives the story an authentic “diary” feel that’s an appropriate fit for an historical novel.
There’s a strong sense of place here, too, as we travel with Seaton through Banff and then later, to Aberdeen and back. Although there isn’t a map in this novel (at least, not in the edition I have), the reader gets a very solid feel for this seaport town.
An intriguing mystery set against the backdrop of 17th Century Scotland, the novel focuses on the character of Alexander Seaton as he looks for the truth behind the two murders, and in the process, finds out some surprising truths about himself. But what’s your view? Have you read The Redemption of Alexander Seaton? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 18 April/Tuesday 19 April – The Blank Page – K.C. Constantine
Monday 25 April/Tuesday 26 April – The Anodyne Necklace – Martha Grimes
Monday 1 May/Tuesday 2 May – Smoke and Mirrors – Kel Robertson