Lessons From History: A Review Of Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained…

Sometimes you start a book which defies your expectations to such an extent that the only thing to do is recalibrate and start again. That’s what happened with Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained (Contraband, Saraband Books). I knew the story was centred around a real-life crime, one which had a direct relationship to Czerkawska and her family, and think I was expecting a whodunnit with the author acting as detective through the ages. I should have known better – Catherine Czerkawska would never be so obvious.

There seems to be a real appetite for true crime which is always with us, and which is often accompanied by a sense of voyeurism – a desire to get a vicarious thrill from discovering the worst that men can do. This is an accusation which cannot be pointed at A Proper Person To Be Detained despite the premise. What unfolds is more of a social and cultural commentary on the Britain of the day, but one which forces you to make parallels with the present.

Regular readers of Czerkawska’s will know that she takes her research seriously. A prolific poet and playwrite as well as a celebrated novelist, her previous books include The Curiosity Cabinet, The Physic Garden, The Posy Ring, and 2016’s The Jewel (the story of Jean Armour whose life has always been overshadowed by that of her husband, Robert Burns). A champion of the under-represented, overlooked, and persecuted Czerkawska is rightly known as one of the most interesting and individual historical novelists we have, able to find a relatable way to tell a story which may have been overlooked otherwise.

With A Proper Person To Be Detained the author’s familial relationship to events lend it an extra dimension which is almost palpable. This time it’s personal and it shows. Murdered in a drunken quarrel, her great-great-uncle John Manley was the son of Irish immigrants, and the way he, and his kith and kin, were treated shows that many lessons are taking a long time to learn. The tragic incident is used as a ground zero from which a family tree evolves and then runs throughout the book, allowing the writer to examine the multiple strands which lead to her own.

But this is not simply a literary Who Do You Think You Are?. Czerkawska uses the plight and experience of her family, and the documents and details resulting from her research, to examine so much more, particularly the plight of immigrants. She discovers plenty of evidence to suggest that myths and stereotypes were widespread and had influence. Well into the 20th century signs could be found on hostelry doors which read “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” (the title of John Lydon’s 1994 autobiography) and Czerkawska looks in great detail as to why such victimization prevailed, and what it meant for those who suffered it.

Perhaps the most shocking commentary on how the Irish were viewed at the time comes from the pen of Frederich Engels, who famously co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, but who appears to have believed that although all working men are equal, some are more equal than others. His thoughts and attacks on the ‘Irishman’ have to be read to be believed, and have parallels with the treatment of, and the reporting on, immigrants and their families today, often persisting through generations. Such prejudice can be as stubborn as it is damaging.

In some ways A Proper Person To Be Detained makes an interesting companion to Jemma Neville’s Constitution Street and the call made in that book for a written bill of rights which should include, among others, the ‘Right to Housing’, the ‘Right to Education’, the ‘Right to Food’, ‘Health’, ‘Work’, and even ‘Life’. An aspect of Czerkawska’s book which is shocking yet unavoidable is the thought that we may be moving backwards rather than forwards when it comes to respecting those rights, particularly when she looks at the social structure of the various places that her family found themselves, including Glasgow’s Calton/Trongate. The detail of the poverty and hardship that had to be endured resonates all too clearly with some areas in cities today.

A Proper Person To Be Detained examines poverty, immigration, mental health, racism, and misogyny, all of which were inherent in everyday life in the late 19th/early 20th century, and unarguably still are today. As you read on you can sense your own anger growing with that of the writer as ever more hardships, tragedies, and injustices are visited upon her ancestors and those like them. Starting with the personal Catherine Czerkawska has written a powerful historical novel, arguably her most memorable to date. By looking at the past with an eye to the present she makes you realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

You can still hear the podcast we recorded with Catherine Czerkawska back in 2017.

Second Thoughts: A Review Of Mandy Haggith’s The Amber Seeker…

You wait ages for a good trilogy to come along then, appropriately, three turn up at once – or almost at once. In the last month or so SWH! has reviewed Runaway, the third (although likely not the last) in Claire MacLeary’s Harcus & Laird series, Star Of Hope, the final book in Moira McPartlin’s Sun Song Trilogy, and now we have The Amber Seeker which is the second part of Mandy Haggith’s Stone Series. If you read part one, The Walrus Mutterer, then you’ll be eager to return to the land-and-seascapes of Haggith’s wonderfully evocative Iron Age, and you won’t be disappointed – but you may be surprised.

The reason for that is all in the telling. Last time around the story was that of Rian, a young woman who is unexpectedly sold into slavery, and who has to learn harsh life lessons quickly as she is used and abused while trying to make some sense of how her life has transpired. In The Amber Seeker the narrator is Pytheas of Massalia, a character who also features in The Walrus Mutterer, and not a sympathetic one at that. This makes it a brave and fascinating decision from Haggith to look at events from his point of view.

If you think of famous films such as Rashomon, The Usual Suspects, or Jackie Brown, and how they look at events from different characters’ perspectives, you’ll have an idea as to what is going on with these narratives (when taken together) as the same story, or at least parts of it, are told from different points of view. Both Rian’s and Pytheas’ stories are riveting from beginning to end, but it’s where they overlap that makes for the most interesting reading. Is one more reliable than the other or are they just two sides of the same story? Or is the full picture to be found somewhere in-between?

This asks questions about the nature of truth, perspective, and the power of the narrator to influence where readers’ sympathies lie. As you would expect, Pytheas is portrayed as a more appealing personality this time around, but it is difficult to forgive or forget his behaviour as Rian experienced it. There is still a strong whiff of toxicity surrounding him, especially when convincing himself of the rights and wrongs of his actions, and Rian’s subsequent reaction. But it is not just he who regular readers will reassess – for those familiar with The Walrus Mutterer many of the main players, such as Toma, Ussa, Gruach, and Fraoch, are changed, to greater or lesser degrees, in relation to their interactions and relations with Pytheas.

At times the world that Haggith creates feels like fantasy as much as history – a sort of Game Of Thrones before the dragons – with warlords, curses, feuds, revenge, and the promise of prosperity in other lands. This is in part due to Haggith’s choice to use English no matter the speaker, with where an individual is from, and who they are, explained using backstory, plot, beliefs, costume, and character. It makes for a world which is strange and intriguing, but familiar enough for readers to immerse themselves fully.

When a book is part of a series then a pertinent question is always, “Do I have to have read the others?”. My answer to this is that, while it usually helps, the best novels need to stand alone. However, while that is true for The Amber Seeker, I would urge you to also read The Walrus Mutterer to get as full a picture as possible of the story up to now. Taken together they make The Lyre Dancers, the final volume in this trilogy, a novel which is eagerly awaited as this is a story which demands a fitting ending. But who gets to tell it, and how? Only Mandy Haggith knows, and that mystery is as intriguing as any.

The Amber Seeker is available now, published by Saraband Books

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Claire MacLeary…

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For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer Claire MacLeary about her trilogy of Aberdeen set crime novels, Cross Purpose, Burnout, and her latest, Runaway (all published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books) . These novels introduced readers to Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, two middle-aged women who join together to work as private investigators.

Claire and Ali discuss the central characters, how they are a refreshing change from the norm, other people’s reaction to their choice of career, and the development of the relationship changes over the three books. They also talk about the importance of research, the often dark themes of Claire’s writing, the importance of bringing something different to the genre, Aberdeen as a setting, and the distinctive way she approaches her work. It’s a must listen for anyone with an interest in books – crime or otherwise – one which gives a fascinating insight into the life of a writer.

You can read the SWH! review of Runaway here, but before you do I suggest you listen to the podcast as I think the two work together well to give you a clear idea as to Claire MacLeary and her work.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). 

You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

We’ll be back soon with someone completely different. See you then…

Our Friends In The North: A Review Of Claire MacLeary’s Runaway…

One of the defining characteristics of most successful crime series is to have protagonists who readers look forward to spending time with. This is particularity prevalent in Scottish Crime Fiction. From Sherlock Holmes to John Rebus and beyond, the best crime writers have created characters who are undoubtedly flawed – arguably defined by those flaws – but who carry enough charisma, charm and intrigue to keep us on their side.

It’s with that in mind that we can give a warm welcome back to private investigators Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, whose flaws, while still evident, are less-sensational than an opium or whisky habit. They are back for round three in their fight against Aberdeen’s criminals in Claire MacLeary’s latest novel Runaway.

This time around we find Maggie and Wilma’s relationship beginning to fracture as cases are increasingly rare, often disagreeing as to the best way to go about their business. Imagine Cagney and Lacey, older, wiser, and wearier, but working the slightly less-mean streets of Mannofield rather than Manhattan, and you have some idea as to the women’s dynamic. Not love/hate, more love/exasperate.

When Scott Milne reports his wife Debbie as missing the police aren’t interested so he decides to go private, asking Harcus & Laird if they will help. The two argue as to whether this is a case worth taking on, with Wilma for and Maggie against. When they do it takes them to places which in turn remind them of their past, reassess the present, and make them fear for the future.

Runaway has a distinctly darker tone than MacLeary’s earlier work, commenting on homelessness, the lives of sex workers, and people-traffiking (something which appears to be rife in northern Scotland, also featuring in Douglas Skelton’s latest novel Thunder Bay as well as being central to the plot of the last series of Shetland).

But, as with Cross Purpose and Burnout, Runaway is as much about the drama of everyday living as it is about solving crime. The reason Maggie and Wilma are relatable is because they are so believable. Two suburban middle-aged women working as PI’s is a tricky scenario to pull off, but MacLeary clearly understands these women and their lives.

Whereas Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane, or Douglas Skelton’s Dominic Queste all have lifestyles which allow them to play the loner, fulfilling crime/noir stereotypes as perfected by the likes of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, Maggie and Wilma have responsibilities which many readers will relate to – ones which they take seriously. Family, partners, friends and colleagues, for most of us these are ties which are not easily severed, and they fight for them despite often receiving disapproval, opprobrium, and often condemnation for what they do. Overcoming, or rather dealing with, such attitudes, often from their nearest and dearest, shows true strength and determination.

This recognisable humanity is what makes Claire MacLeary’s novels as notable as they are welcome. She makes nods to, and understands, the tropes and themes of crime fiction but adapts them to her characters rather than the other way round, avoiding cliche and stereotype. This also applies to the way people talk to each other. MacLeary clearly has an ear for how people argue, bicker, and tease, but also understands how they struggle to apologise, explain, or make-up afterwards. It’s as much about what remains unspoken as what is said, and the problems that result from this inability to communicate.

Both women’s life experience comes into its own and it’s their refusal to be overlooked and ignored which gives Runaway a vitality and verve which is rare. MacLeary uses who they are and how others may perceive them as a strength rather than suggesting any weakness, turning people’s prejudices against them. Being underestimated and patronised becomes one of the greatest weapons in their armoury.

What is often asked when you review a novel in a running series is, “Do you need to have read the earlier books?”. With Runaway the answer is two-fold – “No you don’t”, but also, “You should anyway”. Runaway stands on its own as a great crime novel, but I’ll bet that once you have made Maggie and Wilma’s acquaintance you’ll want to get to know more. In just three novels they have become two of Scottish fiction’s most engaging characters, who, as suggested at the top of the page, you’ll want to spend more time with. I can’t wait to find out what they, and Claire MacLeary, do next.

Runaway is out now, published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

That Was The Year That Was: It’s The Best Of 2018 Podcasts – Part 1 (Books)…

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For our Review of the year in Scottish writing and all things bookish Ali was once again joined by Booky Vikki herself, Publishing Scotland’s Vikki Reilly, to discuss their favourite books of the year and the state of Scottish writing and publishing. While doing so they try to identify the themes and trends of the last 12 months, look into what’s coming in the new year, forget the names of things (mostly Ali, to be fair), talk music, “Mayhem”, and explain why 2018 belonged to Muriel. It was quite the year and hopefully we go some way to summing it up and rounding it off for you.

The podcast is the perfect companion piece to our earlier post ‘The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s 10 Best Books Of 2018 (+1)…’ (see right), where you’ll be able to link to reviews of many of the books and writers that Vikki and Ali discuss. There’s a lot of love for writers and publishers alike, and although we didn’t manage to cover it all, we hope you’ll find something to pique your interest. Continue reading

Begin Again: A Review Of Douglas Skelton’s The Janus Run…

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As regulars to SWH! will know, crime-writer Douglas Skelton is one of our favourite novelists. He has been a guest on our podcast, and his most recent novels, 2016’s The Dead Don’t Boogie & 2017’s Tag – You’re Dead both featured in their particular years’ ‘Best Of’ roundups. They were taken from his series of Dominic Queste novels, which feature a Glasgow gumshoe obsessed with film, noir, and film noir. Skelton has Queste speaking and acting as if he roams the streets of Brooklyn rather than Barlanark, so it makes complete sense that he has chosen to set his latest, The Janus Run, (a departure from the Queste books), in New York. This move makes for his most exciting novel yet.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Dominic Queste fan, and I hope we hear more from him before too long, but The Janus Run is a proper page-turner thriller, pure and simple – enthralling from start to finish. It feels as if this Atlantic crossing has freed Skelton as a writer. Instead of having characters pretending to be in the movies, this time they are in them. It’s as if he has brought all of his influences to bear – the novels, the films, and the TV shows which he loves are still in evidence, but without the direct references which, while great fun, always felt more than a little knowing. This time round Skelton shows rather than tells. Continue reading

An Indelible Event: A Review Of Donald S. Murray’s As The Women Lay Dreaming…

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It’s a well-worn argument, but the lack of Scottish history taught in schools has undoubtedly had a negative affect on the Scottish cultural psyche. To quote Sam Henry (then President of Scottish Association of Teachers of History) in The Scotsman in 2005 this situation means, “we are not doing justice to pupils and their grasp of their own heritage and their ability to come to terms with the world.” I won’t go into it much further here, except to say that a prime example of such gaps in many people’s knowledge of Scottish history, outside of the Highlands and Islands, is the sinking of HMY Iolaire on 1st January 1919 off the port of Stornaway. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters with over 200 out of the 283 aboard dying. They were returning from the First World War, so close to home they could almost touch it. The very definition of a national tragedy.

The first I heard of it was in song (in my mid-30s) and I found it embarrassing that was the case, if understandable. However, learning about it in this way does suggest that such stories told artfully can help fill in those gaps in people’s knowledge and awareness. So it is with Donald S. Murray’s new novel As The Women Lay Dreaming (Saraband Books) which gave me an insight into the Iolaire disaster which no history book could manage, in a manner similar to the way Iain Crichton Smith’s novel Consider the Lilies gives perspective to, and understanding of, the Highland Clearances. Murray’s is a powerful book, one which tells of a survivors’ story and the effect such a terrible event can have even through the generations. Continue reading

American Horror Story: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Andy Davidson…

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For the latest podcast Ali met up with the American novelist Andy Davidson before his event at The Edinburgh International Book Festival. In an ironically dreich Charlotte Square the two discuss Andy’s terrific debut novel In The Valley Of The Sun which is among the best of the year so far.

DhhU22jWAAAKJSQPublished on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books,  In The Valley Of The Sun is set in the small towns of the Texas desert. We’re calling it a vampire thriller unlike any other, but, as you’ll hear, that’s not necessarily how Andy sees it.

If you want a point of reference think Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark, or even Jim Jarmusch’s 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, among many other cinematic and literary influences. Dripping with blood, sweat and tears, it is as shocking as it is compelling, and in Travis Stickwell Davidson has created an anti-hero for the ages. If you are a fan of horror and/or crime fiction then you don’t want to miss out on this one. Continue reading

Fantastic Voyage: A Review Of Mandy Haggith’s The Walrus Mutterer…

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Perhaps more than any other medium fiction is able to transport you to other times and places – placing you in the company of strangers but making you feel you belong. A consummate example of this is Mandy Haggith‘s latest novel The Walrus Mutterer. Set in 320 BC, during the Iron Age, it follow the trials and tribulations of Rian, a young woman learning her skills as a healer, as well as helping with communal duties, before she is suddenly and unexpectedly sold into slavery. What follows is a depiction of the harsh reality of slavery added to the dangers of life at sea, and often more so in strange lands. The hunt is on for the mythical Walrus Mutterer as Rian struggles to comprehend her new life, and how to survive.

Haggith grabs the reader right from the start. Within pages you are with Rian watching an unusual parade of passengers depart a recently arrived trading boat. The author wastes no time in introducing characters who are immediately captivating – the drunken foster-father Drost, Ussa – a cruel and intimidating female trader, and Gruach and Fraoch who are described as “the dragon man and the dwarf” respectively. And then there is the slim, curious, and clearly out-of-place Pytheas, a wealthy Greek traveller and writer who Ussa says is “Part child and part god and part, I don’t know what”. It’s a cast who you can picture quite clearly in your mind, and once the players are introduced the action begins, in this case with such pace it takes your breath away. Continue reading

The Quines Of Crime: A Review Of Claire MacLeary’s Burnout…

DSC_0778.jpgWhen writing in any genre, new writers in particular have a balance to try to get right. They want toCP_cover introduce something fresh while still making the writing recognisable to regular readers who expect certain tropes and conceits from their fiction. If you can get the balance right then there is every chance you have a successful novel on your hands.

One of the finest crime fiction debuts of recent years was Claire MacLeary’s Cross Purpose (right). Published in 2017 on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books, it introduced two new crime fighters in the unfamiliar form of Maggie Laird and “Big” Wilma Harcus, an odd couple in a fine and long tradition from Holmes and Watson to the vast majority of recent TV detectives (Morse/Lewis, Scott/Bailey, Creek/Magellen and Hayes/Addison being just a few personal favourites). Continue reading