Author: A. D. Scott
Synopsis (Courtesy of IndieBound):
“In the Highlands of 1950s Scotland, a boy is found dead in a canal lock. Two young girls tell such a fanciful story of his disappearance that no one believes them. The local newspaper staff—including Joanne Ross, the part-time typist embroiled in an abusive marriage, and her boss, a seasoned journalist determined to revamp the paper—set out to uncover and investigate the crime. Suspicion falls on several townspeople, all of whom profess their innocence. Alongside these characters are the people of the town and neighboring glens; a refugee Polish sailor; an Italian family whose cafe boasts the first known cappuccino machine in the north of Scotland; and a corrupt town clerk subverting the planning laws to line his own pocket.
Together, these very different Scots harbor deep and troubling secrets underneath their polished and respectable veneers—revelations that may prevent the crime from being solved and may keep the town firmly in the clutches of its shadowy past.”
Thoughts: A Small Death in the Great Glen is one of those novels I wanted to like more than I did. It is easy to see what Ms. Scott was trying to accomplish. She was hoping to create a different type of detective novel, one that addresses some of the social issues of the time while solving a mystery. Unfortunately, with it being part murder mystery, part social commentary, part personal discovery, and part cultural exploration, there was too much occurring at the same time. Consequently, the book lost its focus several times throughout the course of the novel, and the entire novel suffered.
The largest weaknesses are its pacing and the sheer number of characters. Subplots are fine and important to novels, but some subplots were drawn out through the entire novel while others were resolved within a chapter. The result is a jagged story that speeds up and slows down at uneven intervals that have no bearing on the overarching story. Also, there are a LOT of major and even more minor characters in this novel that each have their own back story and subplot. There is simply too many to track, and the reader quickly becomes confused. Any time a reader becomes confused or has to backtrack to try to remember who was doing what, the story loses some of its hold on the reader.
Having grown up in the Scottish Highlands, Ms. Scott does a fantastic job of presenting her birth location in all its glory. Infusing a lot of the colloquialisms into the dialogues adds a sense of authenticity to the story, lending an air of charm to some of the proceedings. The reader gets a picturesque and honest idea of what it was like to live in the Scottish highlands in the 1950s, replete with attitudes and atmosphere. A Small Death in the Great Glen is not a novel that adapts its setting to fit more modern thinking but rather forces the reader to adapt to a more historical mindset. Challenging but at the same time informative, this is where the novel shines.
At times slow to the point where it is interesting, at other times where so much happens in a few short pages that the reader needs to pause to catch one’s breath, A Small Death in the Great Glen is a uneven novel. Ms. Scott deserves accolades for tackling a very difficult subject matter, but it would have been more effective had it not been buried as a subplot. Even more important, there should have been greater focus on main characters versus minor ones. With such a large cast, the distinction is lost, and the reader cannot determine which subplots require the greater attention. Its presentation of the Scottish highlands is superb, but the jaggedness of the story bogs down the entire novel. This is unfortunate because there are moments of brilliance; they just happened to buried under too much clutter for them to shine appropriately.
Thank you to Atria Books for my review copy!