A new novel from Douglas Skelton is always reason for cheer so the recent publication of his latest, Thunder Bay (Polygon Books) was welcome news. It’s another departure in terms of style and setting from Skelton, a writer who refuses to rest on his laurels, always keen to explore different literary approaches to writing crime fiction. A prolific writer of non-fiction books on crime as well, he is steeped in his subject area and brings all his knowledge and understanding to his fiction. The style may vary but the name Douglas Skelton is a guarantee of quality.
His characters are usually to be found pounding metropolitan mean streets, but the action in Thunder Bay takes place on an island off the coast of Scotland and Skelton manages to make this landscape as equally dangerous and disturbing, understanding that the threat is not in the place, but with those who live there. In doing so he brings to mind many influences including films such as The Wicker Man and When Eight Bells Toll, the Shetland TV series, as well as island novels such as Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands, Kevin MacNeil’s The Stornoway Way, and Louise Welsh’s Naming The Bones.
As with all of the above examples, Skelton understands that island life has a very particular, and, especially to outsiders, an often peculiar feel. Due to the necessary close-knit dynamic of such a community strangers are noticed and viewed with suspicion. Secrets are closely guarded but never forgotten, passed down through generations, and crime and recrimination are often two sides of a very similar coin.
Journalist Rebecca Connolly arrives into just such a community, travelling from the mainland to the appropriately named island of Stoirm in search of a story which will make her name. 15 years previously the island’s most infamous native, Roddie Drummond, was charged with the murder of Mhairi Sinclair but, in that singularly Scottish and often unsatisfactory manner, found Not Proven. This is a verdict which splits locals into factions which don’t heal despite Roddie leaving. His return for his mother’s funeral threatens to stir up all those old resentments and Rebecca is determined to discover the truth. What she finds is more shocking and sensational than she could ever have imagined.
Skelton understands people, both their strengths and flaws. He certainly understands the evil that men are more than capable of doing but manages to avoid making his characters monsters. He doesn’t simply divide them into white and black hats, they are more complex than that – sidestepping stereotypes while acknowledging types. He is also confident enough to have more than one storyline unfolding keeping the reader on their toes as to where the narrative is going.
Skelton proves once more that he is master of his craft. I can’t think of many, if any, other writers who bring such varied and distinctive styles to their books. With that versatility in mind, as well as his wry humour, a deft way with a cliffhanger, and a barely concealed anger at injustice, with Thunder Bay in particular the writer he most reminds me of is Iain Banks, especially the latter’s later novels The Steep Approach To Garbadale and Stonemouth.
From the Clydeside crime novels of his Davie McCall series, through the tales of Glasgow gumshoe Dominic Queste, his action-packed New York novel The Janus Run (a movie adaptation waiting to happen) and now Thunder Bay, Douglas Skelton shows that he is a writer who you can’t pidgeonhole or pin down. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he gives us next.