Book Review: The Bookseller of Inverness by S G MacLean – a stunning Scottish thriller of intrigue and revenge

It’s hard for me not to feel a lump in my throat when reading a book that describes so vividly the events around the Jacobite uprisings that aimed to put a Stuart back on the throne. The butchery and barbarism of the government forces at the Battle of Culloden, the subsequent hunting down of Jacobites through Scotland and the harsh penalties enacted on those that were captured, including the ‘traitor’s death’, are hard to read about without feeling, well, rather cross.

With The Bookseller of Inverness, S G Maclean brings this history to life. It’s a murder mystery set in the Highland city of Inverness, the bookseller of the title, Iain MacGillivray, a veteran of Culloden who has somehow survived, though scarred both physically and mentally. He’s a brooding man of thirty-four, silent and dour as he runs his shop and lending library, coming to life a little at dances where he’s a popular fiddler.

Iain’s world is turned upside down and he is hauled out of his melancholy when several events happen in rapid succession. A stranger is found murdered in his bookshop – he’d previously been fossicking for a book he was desperate to find. And we have the return to Scotland of Iain’s father, Hector, who if found by the authorities will surely face death for his connection to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender.

On his desk lay a dirk like the one he had once habitually carried, before the bearing of arms or the wearing of tartan had been forbidden to Highlanders. Tied to the hilt of his knife, though, was a white silk rosette. Iain’s heart began to quicken. It was the white cockade, as worn in his own blue bonnet and in that of practically every other soldier of the prince’s army in the ’45. The white cockade, the most recognisable of all the Jacobite symbols, on the hilt of the knife that had been used to cut the throat of the man sitting dead in his locked bookshop.

Hector tells Iain about The Book of Forbidden Names, which has coded messages revealing traitors to the Jacobite cause. These are not just people who have sided with the government, but those who have ratted on the prince’s followers leading to their capture. Both sides would give their eye teeth for this book, including the victim found in Iain’s shop. Iain thinks he knows where another copy of the book might be, and soon more bodies turn up. It seems there is a killer out there with revenge in mind.

The novel is a brilliant murder mystery/thriller, but it is also an evocative imagining of Inverness in the 1750s, and boasts a wonderful cast of characters. There are the Grandes Dames, the elderly women who gather in Iain’s grandmother’s parlour who add a lighter tone to the story with their gossip; Mairi Farquharson, Iain’s grandmother rules the roost and is fearless in her standing up to English soldiers; Donald Mòr, Iain’s oddball bookbinder, is a master craftsman but spends most of the weekend either drunk or in the cells; the mysterious Ishbel MacLeod, the confectioner and her adopted son Tormod who hangs out with Donald.

Iain’s father Hector is a marvellous invention, a risk-taker and flirt, who in his sixties shows no signs of slowing down. Iain has a difficult time reining him in. There are some nasty English soldiers garrisoned at the town to collect rents and supposedly manage any Jacobite stirrings, but there are good army officers too.

MacLean has done loads of research and adds a lengthy bibliography at the end of the book. Here she explains also about the divisions within the Scots, those for or against the Jacobite cause, those who changed sides and those clans who were divided. Like all good historical fiction, her novel makes you want to read more about what really happened.

The background to the novel may sound a little grim, but The Bookseller of Inverness is a rollicking adventure laced with dry Scottish humour. There’s a bit of romance and the storyline has plenty of interesting twists. Iain is a bit of a hot-headed blunderer, not your Poirot kind of sleuth, and gets himself into some odd corners, but with people like his crazy bookbinder, Donald Mòr, at hand, he manages to get away with it. Underneath his terse manner lies a fierce loyalty to his family.

It would be terrific to think we might join Iain again for another mystery and some more Scottish history, but this book seems to be a stand-alone novel. And the ending leaves things nicely tied up too. But we can live in hope. I enjoyed it so much I’m giving it five stars, and can’t wait to read some more from S G MacLean.

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