Tag Archives: Scottish Fiction

John Buchan’s “The Island of Sheep”

I have over the past couple of years blogged on all of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay thrillers, with the exception of The Island of Sheep (known in some American editions as The Man From the Norlands), published in 1936 and the last pure thriller Buchan wrote before his untimely death in 1940, during his period of office as Governor-General of Canada.

I first read John Buchan when I was in my teens. He remains one of my favourite authors; to my mind nobody quite did what he liked to call ‘shockers’ quite as well. I can well remember my first teenage reading of The Island of Sheep, by candlight in a tent on a camping expedition. The story gripped me then and has since, though I know it almost by heart.

Richard Hannay is the hero of some of Buchan’s finest novels, from The Thirty-Nine Steps, through Greenmantle and Mr Standfast, to The Three Hostages. Rather like its author, the Hannay of The Island of Sheep is growing old. He feels himself to be sluggish, out of sorts, his adventurous past just memories.

Then an incident from his distant past, when he was a mining engineer in South Africa, comes back to haunt him. He recalls a siege against villains, when he came to the assistance of a Norse fortune-seeker called Haraldsen. At its resolution, Haraldsen makes Hannay and his friend Lombard swear an oath to come to the protection of himself and his family should the need ever arise.

A promise forgotten over the decades. Hannay is now a middle-aged country squire, Lombard an overweight and out of condition banker, and the third member of the trio – Peter Pienaar, the Boer hunter who appears in several Buchan novels, killed in the Great War.

Haraldsen is dead too, but his son is alive, being pursued by a gang of blackmailers and extortioners. The younger Haraldsen meets Hannay again in Norfolk, worn out, a man on the run. So Hannay and Lombard – aided by Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of Greenmantle – find themselves secreting Haraldsen away, first at Hannay’s home in the Cotswolds, and then at Sandy’s home in the Scottish Borders.

Along the way are many adventures, including a magnificent car chase up the Great North Road – perhaps the best car chase in thrillerdom, certainly the best written.

There is another pleasing addition to the gang of allies, Hannay’s son Peter John, a keen naturalist whose knowledge of the ways of wild geese helps to save the day. Peter John is very much a chip off the old block – he is based on Buchan’s own eldest son, who himself wrote splendid memoirs of his life in Scotland and adventures in natural history. Buchan dedicated this book to his son.

After alarms and excursions in the Scottish borders, the action moves to Haraldsen’s home, the Island of Sheep of the title, set in the wild landscapes of the Faeroe Islands, where the action comes to an exciting climax in what can only be described as a Viking ending.

To my mind, no writer comes close to Buchan in describing wild landscapes, whether it be the meadows and woodlands of the Cotswolds, the glens and hillsides of the Scottish Borders, or the windswept islands of the north Atlantic. His knowledge of the land came from his own explorations. He was, for all his life, a great walker and considerable rock climber. He captures the spirit of the place in a way that haunts your mind long after you’ve finished reading one of his books.

I’ve walked many of the landscapes which inspired Buchan. He got them right. He was also a very fine literary artist. Probably one of the best writers who turned his hand to writing thrillers. No matter how many times I read his books, I always want to start again.

If any writer inspired me to write the kind of books I do, it is John Buchan, though I make not the slightest claim to have anything like his great genius for such stories. My own Scottish thriller Balmoral Kill is my own small tribute to this wonderful writer.

It is pleasing to see that Buchan is now taken seriously as a great Scottish novelist, after years of being sidelined and saddled with misconceptions by critics who rarely actually read what he wrote or studied the truth about his life.

The Island of Sheep is a fine conclusion to the Richard Hannay stories.

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Dick Donovan – Detective

Before Sherlock Holmes there was Dick Donovan, hugely popular first in Scottish and national newspapers, and then – like Sherlock – in the pages of the Strand magazine. Donovan, who is not just the detective but the purported author of these tales, was thought by many early readers to be a real detective, relating actual cases.

In fact they are fiction, penned by a quite fascinating author called Joyce Emmerson Preston Muddock (1842-1934), the author of some fifty books and 250 detective stories. For a time, in the Strand, Sherlock and Donovan appeared in subsequent issues. A joy for the reader, I would think. If you can’t have Sherlock, have Donovan.

Now, I’d often heard of Dick Donovan. His exploits feature in many books on Victorian detective fiction. But until a month ago, I’d never read any. Then, on holiday in Oban, I found a wonderful new edition of the earliest stories, set when Donovan is a detective in Glasgow, with a quite superb introduction by Bruce Durie. Mr Durie gives a splendid account of Muddock’s colourful life and relates how the character of Dick Donovan came about. This is certainly the edition to get.

Muddock was a prolific journalist and fiction-author, who led an extraordinary life, being present in major historical events such as the Indian Mutiny and travelling through parts of the world that were considerably dangerous at the time, all grist to the writer’s mill, before settling down as an editor and writer. I’ll say no more here, for you should read Mr Durie’s account of this fascinating man’s life for yourself.

It’s easy to understand just why early readers thought these cases were accounts of real-life detection. There is a verisimilitude about the cases that certainly suggest that there is a real detective at work here. Dick Donovan, in the course of this volume alone, deals with murders, man-slaughterers, embezzlers, grand and petty thefts and encounters some memorable characters along the way.

We never, at least not in these early stories, learn much about Donovan himself, except that he is a likeable detective who works by instinct and his experience of human frailties and character. What does come shining through, from the author and his creation, is a huge compassion for the messes that ordinary people get into. In several of the stories you feel sympathy for the criminals, some of whom are trapped in crime by the unfair circumstances of Victorian society. But Donovan never hesitates to do his duty, though always with an understanding and sense of fairness

Muddock’s sense of place is excellent too. He has that rare writer’s gift for describing a setting in a few lines. I was quite lost in the Victorian Glasgow of so many of these tales. Almost like a kind of fictional time-travelling.

These stories, and the works of this author, are too good to be lost on the dusty sleeves of second-hand bookshops. They are of the highest quality of fiction. J.E.Preston Muddock and Dick Donovan deserve a renaissance.

To order a copy just click on the link below:

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John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps

Last year marked the centenary of the first book publication of John Buchan’s classic thriller. I blogged on the book itself on March 19th 2015 in celebration. But I want to recommend to you a quite excellent book about the background and genesis of The Thirty Nine Steps, which I’ve really enjoyed reading.

The title is John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps – An Exploration by John Burnett and Kate Mackay, published by National Museums Scotland.

If you enjoy reading Buchan as much as I do, you’ll love this book. The authors begin with a brief biography of Buchan himself, before examining the thriller in considerable detail, looking at the book’s origins, describing the events within chapter by chapter – there are spoilers here, so I would recommend that you read the thriller first if it’s new to you.

If you’ve ever thought of writing your own thriller you’ll find this book quite inspirational; it takes you on a journey across the Galloway and Borders landscape through which Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay escapes his enemies, look at the characters of the various Scots he meets on the way, takes an in-depth look at the way disguise is used in the novel, and investigates pre-Great War espionage and its links with the chase thriller.

There are a number of nods in the direction of other Buchan thrillers as well, so the devotee of his work will find much of value here.

John Buchan is only now getting the reputation he deserves as an important writer of Scottish fiction. It is good to see the appearance of books like this which examine his work with such readable scholarship.

To order a copy please click on the link below:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1905267878/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1905267878&linkCode=as2&tag=johnbainbridg-21

 

 

 

 

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Josephine Tey’s “The Singing Sands”

 

It must be forty years since I last read one of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant novels, and thought it would be interesting to look at one of them again. The Singing Sands is a brilliant if flawed detective story; not that that matters to me, for the brilliance of the writing much outweighs the flaws. It was one of the last pieces of writing Tey undertook, and was published in the year she died, 1952. There is a somewhat elegiac feel to the whole piece.

It is not a detective story in the conventional sense. Alan Grant is on leave suffering from stress and claustrophobia. The suggestion is that this is from overwork, though there are references to his time in World War Two.

Grant, on his way by the overnight sleeper train to a fishing holiday in Scotland, witnesses the discovery of the body of a man called Charles Martin. Martin has apparently fallen and banged his head in his compartment. As this appears to be an accidental death, Grant wanders away, not realising that he has picked up the dead man’s newspaper, on which are scribbled a verse of geographic clues.

But as he tries to enjoy his holiday, the words of the verse play on his mind. He begins to discover the background of the dead man, but is he who everyone believes him to be?

And what are the geographic clues in the verse? What are the singing sands?

In descriptive Scottish scenes worthy of John Buchan, Grant goes to the Hebrides in search of a solution. Some of the novel’s best writing is here. You get a real feeling of just how a Scottish island would have been in the years immediately after the war. Tey’s feeling for the Scottish landscape is superbly presented.

When Grant returns to London he finds out a great deal about the past of the dead man. All is not what it seems, for the dead man seems to have a double-past.

And was Charles Martin’s death on the train accident or murder? I won’t say anymore because I think this is a detective story you should read for yourself. And Tey, as we witness in some of her other books, is quite skilled at bending the rules of detective fiction to achieve her effects.

If the solution to the mystery didn’t quite work for me, I’m not that bothered. The journey was vastly entertaining and Tey is quite a page-turner.

The Singing Sands is not up there with her very great classics such as Brat Farrer and The Franchise Affair, but it is a terrifically atmospheric read, and her descriptions of the Scottish landscape and people are quite beautifully executed.

Well worth reading.

To order a copy click on the link below:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Singing-Sands-Josephine-Tey/dp/0099556731/ref=as_sl_pc_qf_sp_asin_til?tag=johnbainbridg-21&linkCode=w00&linkId=&creativeASIN=0099556731

 

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The Hill of the Red Fox

The Hill of the Red Fox
By Allan Campbell McLean

Many years ago, when I was a child, long before I ever visited or walked on the Isle of Skye, I felt I knew it quite well through the exciting thrillers of the novelist Allan Campbell McLean.

This author has, and not without some justification, been compared to the great John Buchan. Both told yarns of innocents in peril, both tended to narrate their novels in the first person, and both wrote present-day and historical stories. As a great admirer of Buchan, I feel that Allan Campbell McLean books belong on a nearby shelf.

The only difference is that Allan Campbell McLean wrote for a younger audience. But the best children’s books can be enjoyed as much by an adult. This author’s work certainly can. In addition to several thrillers he wrote three very fine historical novels set during the Highland Clearances.

He also wrote an adult novel The Glasshouse, based on his own experiences in a military prison during World War Two. This latter was banned from publication in the United States. I read it many years ago. A classic work of literature. The resistance to the book probably sent the author towards writing the books for which he is best known.

“The Hill of the Red Fox” (1955) was the first of Allan Campbell McLean’s Skye thrillers. It’s a novel set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s, and is one of the best in this crowded genre.

Alasdair, who has led a sheltered life in London, beset with romantic dreams of his Scottish heritage, is sent to stay on the Isle of Skye, in a farming croft that belonged to his late father. The croft is now being run by the dour Murdo Beaton, with the help of his mother and young daughter Mairi. Alasdair doesn’t get a very warm welcome on his arrival.

And even before he gets there he has had a mysterious encounter on the train to the Highlands – rather like Richard Hannay’s railway journey in Buchan’s “The Thirty-nine Steps”. Alasdair is passed a message by a desperate spy who jumps the train, a villain in hot pursuit.

On Skye, Alasdair meets a number of friends of his late father, including Duncan Mor, a crofter and sometime poacher who takes Alasdair under his wing. Allan Campbell McLean’s depictions of Skye and crofting life, the ways of the shepherd, the peat-cutting, the weather in the mountains, are both beautifully lyrical and realistic. When I first visited Skye in 1997, I could recognise so much from my memories of this author.

I’m not going to give any of the plot away, for this is a thriller well worth seeking out – and having read all of Allan Campbell McLean’s novels I can say now that there isn’t a duff one among them – but I will look at some general themes.

Apart from the very accurate depiction of Skye, “The Hill of the Red Fox” portrays very beautifully the friendship between Duncan Mor and Alasdair. Having lost his own father and been brought up by a mother and aunt, Alasdair finds a father-figure in the crofter. He’s taught the real ways of Scotland – far from the romantic Jacobite tosh of his reading matter. As the weeks on Skye pass by, Alasdair grows up.

And he has to, for he soon finds himself in a situation of incredible danger, his life threatened more than once. Allan Campbell McLean is particularly good at portraying hurried journeys, night-time assignations, the true nature of how to follow someone and the grip of fear in the stomach when you realise you are being followed yourself.

Alasdair finds himself in a situation where it becomes hard to know just who to trust as he tries to interpret the one clue he has – a slip of paper passed to him by the spy on the train which reads “Hunt at the Hill of the Red Fox”. The hill itself – Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh Ruaidh in the Gaelic – is easy to find, but its mystery, well…

The whole chase leads to a dramatic conclusion, with the kind of accurately portrayed action that any mainstream thriller writer would have been proud to have penned. Cold War espionage is very well done here, the mistrust and fear of a time that is now – unbelievably – sixty years ago.

Allan Campbell McLean’s books were to be seen regularly on bookshelves when I was young. “The Hill of the Red Fox” is still in print, both as a paperback and eBook. Sadly, some of his other classic writings seem to be out of print, though second-hand copies are readily available from the usual online sources.

But this is an author who writes with such great ability that he deserves to have all of his books available in good modern editions. I do hope that one of the publishing houses might do that, perhaps one of the enterprising Scottish publishers.

Allan Campbell McLean’s books should be there to be found by a new generation of young – and not so young – readers.

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Jekyll and Hyde

I was interested to see that a new British television series of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde airs in a week or two. The story has been perennially popular since Robert Louis Stevenson first wrote it in 1885 while enjoying a seaside recuperation at Bournemouth. It was published a year later.

It is one of those rare works of fiction where you can just say the title and everyone will know what you mean. Although, the majority, I suspect, have never read the original tale, taking their knowledge of the story from films and television. Many will not even know that the correct title is actually “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.

We can, of course, never read it in quite the same way as its first readers. By now surely everyone knows that Jekyll transforms into the malignant Hyde? The original shock value of that transformation can never be recaptured. But how often today do we read or hear of someone having a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality?

I’ll deal with a few of the films and the new television version – set not in Victorian times but in the 1930s – in a few weeks. But now I want to go back to Stevenson’s original story

Why does the story still hold such power 130 years after it was written? To start with, it was an instant bestseller. The book sold over 40,000 copies in its first six months. It was read with interest by Queen Victoria herself, the prime minister and had an influence on writers and artists. The story and its moral implications became the subject of newspaper editorials and church sermons. It almost instantly inspired stage-plays, with members of audiences reportedly fainting during the transformation scenes – well, that was the spin put out by theatre managements anyway!

Richard Mansfield’s acting performance in the role in the London of 1888 just happened to come along at the same time as the Whitechapel Murders. Indeed, some audience members thought that Mansfield might even be Jack the Ripper. Or that the story and play might have inspired the killings. The kind of publicity that modern-day authors would kill for (pun intended!) The gentler Stevenson would probably have been less sure.

Legend has it that Stevenson wrote and corrected the story more or less in three days. Legend has it wrong, I’m afraid. The actual work covered about six weeks in time, though that’s not bad going for a 64,000 word book. And it was not originally envisaged as a moral parable. Stevenson was hard up and needed the money, as authors tend to do. It certainly fulfilled that purpose.

In fact it was written and intended to be published as a “crawler” – one of those Christmas stories so beloved of Dickens, slightly scary, designed to appeal for the mass-market, something with a slight gothic edge. Rather like his previous yarns “The Body Snatcher” and “Olalla”. Stevenson meant it to be published for the Christmas of 1885. In fact it appeared a month later.

Interestingly, given the nature of the plot, his publisher Longmans issued it in two separate editions; a cloth binding for the wealthier reader of literature at 1s 6d and a cheaper paper covered edition for mass readership at 1 shilling. Almost as soon as a copy had crossed the Atlantic it was massively pirated, robbing Stevenson of much needed royalties.

The story goes that Stevenson gained the germ of the story during a nightmare – worth pointing out that he was, like many a Victorian, taking drugs at the time for poor health – being woken by his wife Fanny as he cried out in his sleep. He told her it was a pity that he’d been wakened as he was dreaming “a fine boguey tale.”

Inspired, he wrote a version of it down at white heat and presented it to his spouse to read. Famously, she tore his tale to shreds, saying that he’d missed an opportunity to present the morality of the plot. To her horror he threw the manuscript into the fire, and began again.

But what was that original draft like, and why did Fanny object so much? It’s possible that it resembled far more some of the film versions, with the sexual overtones of Hyde as a man about town, depicting Victorian London in all its grimmest aspects. Suggestions have been made that this was what scared Fanny so much. She was, after all, trying to nurture a literary genius towards deserved and widespread fame. And these were prudish times. At least for works that were to find an audience in print.

On the other hand, Stevenson himself, in a letter to a friend, decried a stage production that included more sexual connotations to the story, though his own argument in that letter makes little logical sense.

It is quite likely that in the earlier version, Jekyll created Hyde as a cover and alibi so that he might carry out his own unpleasant yearnings. When we think back on the story, memory might play us false. Readers tend to remember Jekyll as all good and Hyde as all bad. But that’s not what Stevenson actually says in the text.

While Hyde is irredeemably evil, Stevenson quite clearly suggests a side of Jekyll that is at best louche and at worst, well?

One of the characters remembers that Jekyll was ‘wild when he was young; a long while ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; a ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace, pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condemned the fault.’

Now what is all that about? I believe it to be a trace of the character of Jekyll left behind from the original draft. After all, and it’s the question that the reader should always be asking, why has Jekyll created the ability of becoming Hyde in the first place? Scientific curiosity or something more prurient?

Was Stevenson recalling something of his own youth? He was brought up with a respectable Edinburgh background. His first real influence was his very Calvinistic nurse. And yet Stevenson went wild in his youth, roaming the streets and brothels of his native city, almost with an alternative identity as ‘Velvet Coat’, as the dwellers in its underworld nicknamed him. It’s known that he fell in love with a young prostitute, even considering the prospect of marriage to her – to the horror of his family. Word had got around. Edinburgh is quite a small place.

And for all that the book is set in London, there are surely elements of Edinburgh there too. We see the respectable squares of the city and the rookeries that are really not so far away. The duality of the city landscape, something like Edinburgh’s old and new towns, where there is the past and poverty on one side and enlightenment and wealth on the other.

The city that Stevenson describes, London, is shown to the reader in a nightmarish way, with its citizens almost morally drowning under a sea of fog, which clings to the streets and buildings like the corruption and depravity that are not so very far away.

Jekyll’s own house is shown to have two sides, like its owner. It remains a fashionable home in a slightly run down but respectable square. But to its rear is the block where Jekyll carries out his experiments.

We are told that they were once the dissecting rooms of a respectable surgeon – bringing forward suggestions of body snatching and doubtful acts of anatomy. The block has its own door leading to a more dubious area of the town – the suggestion is that this is the door through which stolen bodies were smuggled. The street beyond is not quite a rookery but a poor place, where the denizens of the underworld might linger. Respectable gentlemen only seem to walk it armed with a heavy cane – or perhaps a swordstick.

And it is quite clear that it is those elements that Jekyll wishes to explore, behind the alias of his sinister alter ego. And though Stevenson destroyed his original draft, written at such speed, the writer within him took over, presenting a series of assumptions and challenges for the careful reader.

Next week I shall look at how Stevenson suggests secrets in his book, how he plays – I think quite deliberately – with his readers’ imaginings. And I shall try to recapture the feelings the first readers of the story might have had, trying to put to one side the now well-known solution to the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.

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John Buchan’s “The Three Hostages”

In previous blogs I’ve looked at two earlier Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan. But “The Three Hostages” is very different from “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “Mr Standfast”. It is more contained than the Hannay spy novels set during the Great War. Here the conspiracy is a criminal plot. And there is one prime villain, a member of the British Establishment. A gentleman about town, a member of Parliament, no less, a popular character on the London scene.

Today we tend to view politicians with considerable suspicion, supposing, fairly or unfairly, that most of them are lining their own pockets at our expense. Only in it for what they can get. Reading “The Three Hostages” you have to remember that Buchan lived and wrote during a more reverential age, when politicians were viewed as genuine public servants – there, even if you disagreed with their political stance, to contribute to what was perceived as the greater good. The idea of making such a man a sinister villain might have been a tad more shocking for the readers of 1924 than it is now.

This is very much a novel about the breakdown of society and order after the chaos of a world war. Quite topical when you think of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler in the reality of the 1920s.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying right here and now that the villain of the piece is one Dominick Medina. Buchan makes this obvious from almost the start of the novel.

The basic premise is simple. In order to safeguard his criminal conspiracy, Medina has kidnapped three hostages with Establishment connections. Before Scotland Yard can close the net on the criminals Richard Hannay has to find and rescue them all.

As with all good thrillers, there is a tight deadline and Hannay only has a piece of doggerel verse to work from as a clue.

Hannay, snatched from the peace and quiet of life as a country gentleman, is also put at a considerable disadvantage by falling victim to the sinister hypnotic powers of Medina himself. The scenes where Hannay becomes – or so Medina believes – his stooge are some of the most powerful that Buchan ever wrote. Buchan himself once expressed the great fear of what it must be like to find your mind being taken over, the horror of losing self-control. It might all sound far-fetched, but remember how characters like Hitler manipulated an entire nation, in a similar bout of near mass-hypnosis.

Unlike the earlier novels, “The Three Hostages” is rooted very firmly in London, though there are episodes in the Cotswolds, Norway and Scotland. In an early Buchan novel “The Power House”, which is rather unfairly neglected these days, we saw how cleverly Buchan portrayed the dangers of London, the sinister quarters of the city which lurk just below respectability.

Here we have a similar portrayal of menace. Buchan is as good at evoking shadier areas of Fitzrovia and Gospel Oak as he is the wild landscapes of the Highlands. There is a sense of claustrophobia in this novel – a feeling that the outdoorsman Hannay is also having to fight his surroundings as much as the chief villain.

Buchan also poses an interesting dramatic situation for his hero. How can Hannay have the freedom to search for the hostages and investigate Medina when he is at the beck and call of Medina for most of the time.

The author uses other familiar characters from the earlier novels to give Hannay moral and practical support. We have here the hero of “Greenmantle” Sandy Arbuthnot (now Lord Clanroyden), Hannay’s wife Mary, the airman Archie Roylance. Buchan reprieves the character of the German Herr Gaudian, from “Greenmantle”, an ally now in Hannay’s quest, rather than an enemy. A sympathetic German in English fiction in 1924 shows Buchan’s horror at what had just happened in the trenches. It was not a very fashionable viewpoint in a Europe where vengeance was the greater motivation.

As matters are revealed there is a dramatic conclusion in the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps the finest duel in thrillerdom. A chase and gunfight on a bleak mountainside.

Now as it happens I’ve just written a similar battle myself, where two men fight it out in the Scottish mountains, in my own thriller “Balmoral Kill”.

And I found it incredibly hard to do. I stand in awe of John Buchan who raised the bar so high that any attempt to do anything similar is daunting to say the least.

The only other writer I know who comes anywhere close is Geoffrey Household in his thriller “The Watcher in the Shadows” (see blogs passim), though his location is a meadow in the Cotswolds.

Buchan was so good at these sort of scenes because of his vast experience of mountain climbing in the Highlands, the long days out in all weathers. Buchan may not have had to fight personal tournaments in such places, but he knew the locations backwards. And it shows. I climb mountains myself and I’ve undertaken long walks in Scotland and elsewhere. I can vouch for Buchan’s veracity. No writer of Scottish fiction gets the spirit of place quite so right as John Buchan.

And it’s interesting that, despite Hannay being in this wider landscape rather than the disturbing back-rooms of Medina’s London, the sense of menace – of danger creeping ever near – never goes away. Buchan makes a mountain range seem almost as ominously claustrophobic as the shadowed streets of inner London.

And as Hannay is attacked mentally as well as physically we find ourselves previewing many of the thriller plots that came along later in the twentieth-century. Where the mind and spirit are subdued every bit as much as the body. Where the survival of the individual’s moral conscience is often very much in doubt.

“The Three Hostages” is probably the best constructed of all the Hannay novels – and I don’t mean that disparagingly, for the Hannay novels in total are a hallmark of excellence in the world of thriller writing.

But here Buchan had obviously considered the plot and the issues within for a long time before he took up his pen. He produced, in my view, not only a classic thriller but one of the finest novels of the 1920s. A state of the nation piece, which makes Buchan’s homeland, coming as it was away from the traumas of the Great War, a very uncomfortable place indeed.

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The Country of Balmoral Kill

I always like to root my plots and characters in a real landscape whenever that is possible. I might alter it, fictionalise it, or just change the odd feature – but I like to start with a reality. And at some point in my fiction I like to use an actual place I know, walk around it and imagine my characters playing out their adventures upon it.

Loch Muick (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Loch Muick (c) John Bainbridge 2015

I always knew, right from the beginning, that my Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest would come to a dramatic conclusion on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. And I knew that the final duel between my hero and villain in Balmoral Kill would have to be in some remote spot in the Cairngorms, though within easy reach of the royal residence of Balmoral Castle.

But I wasn’t sure where.

In all my Scottish stravaiging I had never been to Loch Muick (pronounced without the u), though I had read about it in my numerous Scottish books and looked at it on the map. It seemed an ideal location for the conclusion of a thriller.

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

So last summer, when we were staying in Ballater, we walked up to take a look, circling the loch and examining the wild mountains and tumbling rivers round about. Plotting a gunfight (even a fictional one) takes some care. I wanted it to be as probable and realistic as possible. This is, after all, a book about experienced assassins. I wanted the line of sight of every rifle to be exact.

We also had to check out the hills around. Both my hero and villain are great walkers and “walk-in” to places where they expect to see some action

And a beautiful wild place Loch Muick is. It was a favourite picnicking place of Queen Victoria, who used to linger for days on end at the lonely house of Glas-Allt-Shiel, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Today’s royal family picnic there even now. The house is as I describe it in the book, as is the surrounding scenery. Believe me, I checked out those sightlines. Every shot described in the book could be taken in reality. Even now when I think of that loch and the Corrie Chash above it, I think of my characters being there. Sometimes they are all very real to me.

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

We also revisited Balmoral Castle (actually they only let you into the ballroom!), strolled through its grounds and examined the countryside round about. I was able to work out the exact routes taken by all of the characters who found themselves on the shores of Loch Muick on a late summer day in 1937.

Other areas of Scotland feature in the book too. I partly fictionalised the places I used in the Scottish Borders, though those scenes are based on the many walks I’ve done around Peebles, the Broughton Heights and Manorwater. In one flashback scene in the Highlands I have a character journey from Taynuilt and out on to the mighty twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and then into the glens beyond, to kill a man in Glen Noe. Some years ago I did a lot of walking in that area and had considerable pleasure in reliving my journeys as I penned those scenes.

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

The book begins in London and journeys into the East End. I’ve walked the streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse by day and night over the years. Balmoral Kill is set in 1937, so there has been a great deal of change in nearly eighty years. The East End was very badly bombed in the War and thoughtless planners have destroyed a lot more. But enough remains to give you the picture. Once more, I could take you in the steps of my characters through every inch of the places mentioned.

Very often going to these locations inspires changes to the writing. Balmoral Kill was half-written by the time we explored Loch Muick. The real-life topography of the place inspired me to make several changes to the novel’s conclusion.

And now I’m writing an historical novel set in the 1190s. The landscape where it is set has changed very considerably in the centuries since. So more imagination is needed, though I still try to root my scenes in reality.

As a walker as well as a writer I find going on research trips is the best way to conjure up locations with the written word.

If you haven’t yet read Balmoral Kill please do give it a try. It’s out now in paperback as well as in eBook form on Kindle, Kobo and Nook. I’d be pleased to know what you think of it. And if you ever do get the chance do take the journey from Ballater up to Loch Muick. It’s well worth while.

Click on the link below to read Balmoral Kill.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=sr_1_1_twi_1_kin?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1427296531&sr=1-1&keywords=balmoral+kill

 

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About Balmoral Kill

The autumn of 1937 – A desperate race against time to find a deadly killer…

In 1936 the British royal family were rocked by their greatest scandal as Edward VIII gave up the throne in order to marry an American divorcee.

Many ordinary people regretted the loss of their popular king. In the dark corridors of power, not everyone was sorry…

A year later the Abdication Crisis seems forgotten and all eyes are on the Coronation that summer. In August the new King George VI will retreat to Balmoral, his remote holiday home in the Highlands of Scotland.

As the shadow of war falls across Europe, a sinister conspiracy lies deep within the British establishment.

A man lies dead in a woodland glade. An unfortunate accident or has the first shot been fired in a secret war?

Sean Miller is recalled home to take on his deadliest challenge – but where do his loyalties really lie?

In a frantic chase, from the slums and sinister alleys of London to the lonely glens of the Scottish Highlands, Miller must hunt and bring down his most dangerous opponent.
His mission – to foil the final shot that will plunge Europe into the abyss of a new Dark Age.

Now in paperback and on Kindle.

Just click on the link below for more details or to order. Thank you.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1422807472&sr=1-1&keywords=balmoral+kill

 

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