Tuesday 25 June 2024

The World's End Murders by Tom Wood

The World's End Murders by Tom Wood reviewed by Rob McInroy

For 37 years, the World’s End murders were a stain on Scotland’s collective conscience, the unsolved rapes and killings of two young women, seventeen years old and out one evening in Edinburgh’s Old Town for a bit of fun. There have been other unsolved crimes over the years but these two somehow struck a chord. When justice was finally dispensed in 2014 it felt, for the country, like a liberation. 

Tom Wood was heavily involved in the case in the middle and later years of the investigation, acting at one stage as the senior investigating officer. For Wood, and for many, if not all, the individuals involved in the investigation, there was always a feeling that the World’s End murders were special, and it was imperative that somehow, some time, the case must be resolved and the perpetrators held to account. 

The basic story will be familiar to anyone with a general awareness of recent Scottish history but Wood’s intimate knowledge of the case allows him to present a gripping and detailed recreation of the various stages of the investigation from the initial enquiry, through the various advances in DNA technology over the course of thirty years, to the breakthrough which finally, belatedly, secured a conviction. 

Wood paints a picture of police investigations in those early days which were characterised by dogged and dedicated individuals working together but hampered by a lack of technology. All information was manually recorded on index cards and filed in an enormous physical database. The chance of oversight – missing a single, vital piece of information among tens of thousands of records – was so high as to be almost an inevitability. 

The case went cold. Occasional advances offered the prospect of a breakthrough – for example, a prisoner in Saughton Jail reported that a cellmate had confessed to the murders – but these led nowhere and the investigation dragged on. Gradually, it was scaled down, though never closed. 

However, although those early detectives could not solve the case, they laid the groundwork for their successors, in future years, to profitably take up the mantle. That the case was eventually solved was as much down to those early detectives as it was to the advances in DNA which led to the final breakthrough. 

DNA was unknown in 1977. The idea that minute traces of evidence could reveal enough genetic information to identify, at odds of one in a billion, a single perpetrator, must have seemed like science-fiction. And yet the detectives in the World’s End case knew that, some time in the future, that is exactly what would happen. The World’s End murders would never have been solved if it hadn’t been for enlightened detectives who knew that scientific advances would come, and that therefore evidence had to be preserved in a pristine condition for examination when that day arrived. Every piece of evidence relating to the case was stored in secure and sterile conditions, which meant that when DNA did offer the chance of identifying the culprits, the raw materials existed in a shape which allowed them to be scientifically examined. It was a remarkable leap of faith by those officers and we owe them a debt of gratitude. 

All of this is relayed by Wood in fascinating detail. DNA was first used in the World’s End murders enquiry in 1988. It would be twenty-six years before it finally brought the truth. There was no single revelation, no immediate breakthrough. Rather, DNA technology advanced and the investigation advanced with it, gradually creating a more and more reliable DNA profile. Eventually, one name emerged. 

Angus Sinclair.

His name is now notorious but, even then, he was known to the officers in the case. He had recently stood trial for murder in Glasgow and had a prolific history of violent sexual crime, including abduction. 

By this time, Sinclair was in prison for a series of sexual assaults on women and girls. Far from any cliched image of a sexual predator, though, he projected the image of a model prisoner, trustworthy and hard-working. This must have presented particular difficulties for the detectives interviewing him – how to reconcile the fact that Sinclair was a violent sexual predator with the calm and seemingly pleasant man before them? Sinclair had a highly developed ability to deceive and dissemble. Those of us who have never been in such circumstances can never know what it must be like to undertake such interviews, and the skill of those who do, the psychological acuity they must require, cannot be underestimated. 

Tom Wood makes the interesting observation that, unlike what we see in TV dramas, senior detectives do not undertake such interviews and, indeed, are not best placed to do so. Lower ranking officers, with recent experience of interviewing and well-versed in the psychological techniques required, are much better placed to undertake high-pressure interviews such as that of Angus Sinclair. 

In addition to Sinclair, the police had always known that there was a second attacker. Again, DNA provided the vital clue to his identity and the way this was done is astonishing, so convoluted that if you read it in a crime novel you would shake your head at the improbability of it. Yet it happened. 

But the real villain of the piece is Sinclair. Tom Wood calls him the embodiment of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that duality of good and evil that has provoked so much analysis of the Scottish psyche for 130 years. 

This case clearly means a huge amount to Tom Wood. Once a policeman always a policeman, and there is no question that cases such as these, where the deaths of innocents go unpunished, must be very difficult to manage. Tom Wood’s approach throughout this book is impeccable: he seeks to determine the facts, of course, but he also looks to understand what went well in the investigation and where they fell short. He wants to understand Sinclair so he can consider what they could have done to stop him. It’s probably the case that we can never, ever understand the mind of someone as evil as Angus Sinclair but, in this forensic study of a crime, an investigation and a trial, Tom Wood comes as close as anyone. This is a highly personal and deeply impressive book. 

One of the final points that Tom Wood makes is perhaps the most compelling. “Families matter,” he says. He dedicates the book to Helen and Christine and the other victims of Sinclair, known and unknown, but he also dedicates it to “the families and friends who are left behind.” This understanding of the impact serious crime has on families and friends is something we have come to acknowledge in the near-fifty years since the World’s End murders took place, and the world is a better place for that.


The World's End Murders can be purchased here

Thursday 13 June 2024

The Paris Peacemakers by Flora Johnston

 

The Paris Peacemakers by Flora Johnston reviewed by Rob McInroy

The timeframe for my fiction series begins in 1935 and I am now writing about the Second World War. The global political situation of the 1930s is central to my work, in particular the economic depression and the concomitant rise of extreme right-wing populism, leading to the sad inevitability of what happened in September 1939 and all that flowed from that. A warning from history, you might say, for people who believe the venal spoutings of Suella Braverman and Nigel Farage and co, and can’t see the banal repetition of history unfolding in front of us.

 

All of that, the political strife in Europe in the 1930s and the economic collapse of the 1920s that preceded it, can in part be traced back to the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of the Great War. What was meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reframe the world order for peace and harmony across nations and ages became a mendacious exercise in punishment and greed.

 

This makes the backdrop for Flora Johnston’s second novel, The Paris Peacemakers, a particularly engrossing one for me. Everything she writes about in 1919 Paris, as the Allies try to forge a peace treaty in the aftermath of the German surrender, leads directly to the grim circumstances that inform the political context of my novels. Flora brings to life in an extraordinary way the mistakes and arrogance and self-interest which set the world firmly on a path that led to Hitler and Stalin, and Putin and Xi.

 

This is a political novel, then, but it is also an intensely personal one. The search for a better political future conducted by Woodrow Wilson and the participants at the International Peace Conference is mirrored in the novel by a search for a better personal future by its three main protagonists, all of whom are seeking a compromise with the past and passage to a more hopeful world.

 

Stella Rutherford is a young woman from Thurso, in the north of Scotland, who takes up a secretarial position at the talks in Versailles which aim to fashion the finished peace treaty. Her older sister, Corran, is a classicist, at a time when women were not expected to concern themselves with abstruse subjects such as Latin. The third main character is Rob, Corran’s fiance, a Scottish rugby internationalist and surgeon who enlists during the war and is traumatised by his experiences.

 

Indeed, the experience of war underpins the drama, with each of the central characters affected by it in different ways. Stella struggles to overcome the grief she feels over the death of her beloved brother Jack, killed on the Western Front but constantly in her thoughts, a ghost from better days.

 

Corran battles with the knowledge that, as a woman, her life has been circumscribed by men and mores. She could take her exams at Cambridge but not graduate. She could work, but only until she married. She would be a wife, and a mother, and produce the next generation of leaders and attendants, men and women, perpetuating the status quo. She wants to fashion a different future.

 

Rob, his psyche ravaged by his experiences as a surgeon at the battlefront, is not yet sure he even believes in a future. In a moment of clarity, he sees the “blessed silence on the Western Front was likely no more than a pause.”

 

This observation is central to the novel. The Treaty of Versailles was the greatest – or perhaps worst – missed opportunity in human history, a moment when the world could have been reset but chose instead to protect the interests of the existing elite, to perpetuate the narrow, bigoted worldview of the western, white, male establishment. Women’s voices were largely excluded from the discussions at Versailles. The views of non-western nations were peripheral. The conference became an echo chamber and, inexorably, the optimistic aims with which it began withered and died.

 

This self-interested bigotry is expertly explored. The casual sexism that both Corran and Stella endure, and that is endemic in the society of the time, is an underlying theme which builds throughout the novel until we understand that such bigotry is not simply small-minded, or ignorant, or self-serving, but positively dangerous.

 

Given what we know, it would be easy for a novel about the treaty negotiations to become bleak and depressing. Flora Johnston’s The Paris Peacemakers is assuredly not that. Her blending of the political and the personal, the macro and the micro, polity and morality, creates a story which is emotional and engaging. Her characters come to life on the page and we urge them on in their quest for something better, something brighter.

 

Something different.

 

This is a very fine piece of writing by a novelist who in her two novels to date has shown a breadth of vision and ambition which is exciting and refreshing.

Tuesday 9 January 2024

Observations on the Ringwood Publishing Writing Competition 2023

 

Ringwood Short Story Competition


For the past three years I’ve been lucky enough to be a judge in the Ringwood Publishing short story competition. I’ve written about the stories in the first two years before but this year we had a bumper entry and a few common themes emerged. The following comments are not intended to be critical – the standard this year was very high – but hopefully I can offer some pointers to help authors in future years.

The biggest issue that struck me this year – in terms of the sheer number of stories which fell into this category – is that so many of them feel oddly distanced. A lot of action is relayed to us second-hand, in retrospect, all described through omniscient narration, rather than the point of view of a main character. It’s like most of the action takes place outside the story. In extreme cases, the story actually reads like a summary of the story. This happened. That happened. Then this. That means the reader can’t get involved. There is a lack of immediacy, of connection, of drama. And, ultimately, of interest.

Books on writing craft talk about starting in medias res, in the middle of events. This is the problem with the stories I’m talking about here. We’re never in the moment, living the scene as it unfolds. We’re hearing about it afterwards, or from the margins, from a distance. We’re never with the characters as their lives unfold.

In medias res is vital for the opening of your story and, again, a lot of stories this year suffered from weak openings. Looking through my notes, in story after story I’ve written “first paragraph could be removed” or even “first page is redundant”. In maybe a dozen stories, there was actually a brilliant first line, except it wasn’t in the first line, it was buried at the bottom of paragraph three or four. If everything up to that point was cut, we would have a very powerful opening. So read your stories again. Is there a stand-out sentence, something like the famous Iain Banks line, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”? There were genuinely a few examples of equally striking lines in this year’s stories, and if they’d been the opening lines the stories would have been immeasurably improved.

Too often, though, the introduction was devoted to a description of a scene, or backstory (which the reader isn’t going to care about because we aren’t invested in any characters yet) or explanations of who the characters are or, worst of all, a character preparing to do something – getting dressed, walking to a destination or the like. The story needs to start where the drama starts. Character and plot then flow from there.

In many stories, the main character was well-described and felt like a real person, but the characters around them were little more than names (and, in some cases, not even that). A lot of characters seemed to be there purely to move the plot forward, without contributing anything themselves. Every character should have a purpose, and the reader should have a sense of what all the principal players are like as individuals.

A lot of this can be done through dialogue and some stories missed opportunities here. This is linked to the point I made about stories feeling distanced. If we found things out through dialogue, rather than an omniscient narrator telling us, that pulls us into the story and makes it feel real. It is much better for a reader to gradually understand the thematic point the writer is looking to make from the characters talking to one another than to have it explained through omnisicient narration.

However, read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound like something a real person would actually say? If all you’re doing is taking a lump of omniscient narration and putting it in quote marks, that doesn’t make it dialogue.

A bald truth is that a lot of stories weren’t ready for submission. It was frustrating that quite a few stories which had the potential to be excellent were submitted before they’d been adequately edited. Let me tell you a giveaway. Whatever the word limit is for a competition – ours was 3000 – there will always be a high percentage of stories that come in ten words or fewer below that limit. I always check the word count before I start reading and this is an immediate red flag. It isn’t always the case, of course, but often it does mean that a writer has edited their story just enough to get it under the limit. That usually means there’s a lot more editing still to be done. Redundancy, cliché, repetition. They will all be in your early drafts and that’s fine. No one has ever written a superb first draft. But you should be refining and reworking your words over and over until only the most precise and perfect ones remain. There are several stories this year that I would like to see again, after proper editing.

I got the impression that half a dozen or so entries were excerpts from novels. There is nothing wrong with that. I’ve won a few competitions with stories that were taken from my first novel Cloudland and, indeed, our winning story last year was adapted from a novel which Ringwood Publishing liked so much it will be publishing this year.

But, if you do this, the short story you write is a completely different entity from the novel from which it’s been adapted, and you must read it with completely fresh eyes. Things you know from the novel are unknown to the reader of the story. Either explain them or, if they don’t add anything to the smaller scale of the plot, remove them. In one story, a character called Mary utters one line and never appears again. In the novel, she is probably a clear and important character, but in the short story she is an inexplicable presence. Who is she and why is she there? The story has to work in its own right, so you will have to change some things.

I hope I’ve managed to indicate some technical points which could help tighten your writing. But the final point I want to make is this: take risks. Don’t play safe. Don’t write something that’s already been written. If you want to write a Saki-esque story that’s fine, but make it your Saki-esque story, not a parody of the real thing. If you want to write a gritty Scots-dialogue drama, great but leave the Irvine Welshisms to Irvine Welsh. If you want to be experimental, experiment. You only have 3000 words to make your story stand out. That means every one of them has to do something important.

Good luck to everyone who ever writes a story and submits it to a competition. If you didn’t succeed this time, don’t give up. Every time you sit down and write you’re learning and improving. Your words matter. Let the world read them.

 


Tuesday 14 February 2023

Sadie, Call The Polis by Kirkland Ciccone

Sadie, Call the Polis by Kirkland Ciccone reviewed by Rob McInroy

Occasionally, you come across a character who, from the first page, feels like an old friend. Louise Welsh’s Rilke is one such, as is Janet in Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia (albeit she’s almost completely insufferable). There’s an effortlessness about the characterisation and a vividness to the voice, a sense that these people are real, that their weaknesses (and they really, really need to have weaknesses) are just as important as their strengths, that their stories are the only thing you want to be concerned with at this very moment.

I’ve been writing long enough to know that the apparent effortlessness in such portrayals is actually the product of an enormous amount of effort, so I commend Kirkland Ciccone for the creation of the absolutely splendid Sadie Relish.

We first meet Sadie in primary school in the long, hot summer of 1976 when she responds to a teacher’s question in class by saying: “When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute just like my mither.” Sadie, then, is a naïve and guileless young girl, a loner in search of magic in the world, unpopular at school and unhappy at home. She is also a wonderful and witty observer of daily life and the blackness of the comedy rings wonderfully true coming through the voice of this honest, decent, caring, sometimes broken young girl.

She is surrounded by a supporting cast that is equally strong and diverse. Her mother, the aforementioned prostitute, is hard-as-nails, exactly the sort of woman you wouldn’t want to have move in next door to you, but someone who, in her own way, loves and cares for her family deeply. Her sister is older, thinks she is wiser, is probably far less so, and the siblings have an authentically troubled relationship through the years. Troubles subsist with her best friend, Gregor, too, and he slides out of the story early only to return, much transformed later on.  

And transformation is an important element in Sadie, Call the Polis. Time, as it does, changes everything. We follow Sadie’s progression from gauche schoolgirl to a mother with her own, definitely troubled children and a welter of cares of her own. Some are life-threatening, some life-changing, and gradually, you come to realise that the familiar and seductive voice of this best friend Sadie has been fooling you (and herself) all along, and the novel has a much darker underbelly than you realised. 

Sadie, Call the Polis is a terrific black comedy, in which serious issues are explored in a highly original way. The humour and the dialogue are classically Scottish, dry as toast, the characters and their outlooks seemingly hard and tough but displaying, if you choose to see it, a warmth and tenderness they won’t admit they crave but do all the same. This is very assured writing and a very fine novel of growing up. 

Thursday 12 January 2023

Liberties by Peter Bennett

Liberties by Peter Bennett reviewed by Rob McInroy

Peter Bennett’s motivation for writing Liberties, he tells the Big Bearded Bookseller in a recent interview, was to be able to tell a story set in the east end of Glasgow with characters with working class voices. These are a rarity in literature, he says, and he’s not wrong, sadly, although there may be tentative signs of an upswing, with a new generation of writers like Emma Grae, Colin Burnett and Kirkland Ciccione taking up the mantle of Irvine Welsh and James Kelman and unapologetically exploring working class heritage (and humour). 

Liberties, then, is set in Shettleston in the late nineties, at the start of the New Labour government, when it was already becoming obvious that, whatever it said on the political tin, it was the same old shite inside. Poverty is a constant, as are the options for escaping it, as are the consequences of those options. 

What appears, at first, to be a series of picaresque adventures featuring a disparate set of characters, gradually coalesces into a single narrative structure pulled together by those powerful working class themes of poverty, family ties and an unerring ability to make desperately poor life decisions. 

Arthur Coyle is a pensioner, friend of Tam and grandfather of Danny. All three, in different ways, are heavily involved with a local loan shark and villain, Harry Mullin. Also in thrall to Mullin is Stevie, a clever and capable young musician in danger of being sucked into a spiral of drugs and petty crime and trouble. This being Scotland in the 1990s, the future looks bleak for all of them but Peter Bennett’s exciting, funny and ultimately moving novel charts a steady path, avoiding clichés and stereotypes, maintaining a sense of realism but leavening it with humour, and creating a cast of characters who are realistic and well drawn, about whom the reader comes to care, and whose stories are genuinely stirring. 

Liberties is highly recommended.

Wednesday 31 August 2022

Blasted Things by Lesley Glaister

 

Blasted Things by Lesley Glaister reviewed by Rob McInroy

I remember buying and reading Lesley Glaister’s early works when I was a stock librarian in the nineties. As is often the case, I was initially attracted by the covers (Digging to Australia, I think, had a Paula Rego painting and that was my introduction to her) and  I found Glaister’s writing immersive and intriguing. When I stopped being a librarian I read less and lost touch with Lesley Glaister until Blasted Things, published by Sandstone Press. I’m delighted to have re-made her acquaintance.

The first section of the novel is set in a field station on the Western Front during World War One in 1917. Clementina Armstrong – Clem – is an auxiliary volunteer nurse and we begin to understand that an interesting back story has led this young woman to such a difficult and dangerous assignment. She is engaged to be married to a doctor but already has doubts – not so much about her fiance Dennis but about marriage itself, the institution, the life that awaits a young woman in Edwardian England. Her experiences in the casualty station, the young men who pass through her care – some surviving, many not – reinforce her doubts.

And then she meets Powell Bonneville, a Canadian doctor, and those doubts, doubts which she has tried to hide deep in her psyche erupt into the open.

Life turns. War over, we rejoin Clem in 1920, now married to Dennis, with a son and a new life and the bright future that everyone in Britain, fatigued by war and death, aspires to have. This was a peculiar time, euphoria and relief and hope in the immediate aftermath of the war not yet eclipsed by the inevitable recession and social crises that would follow later in the decade.

For Clem, this transition from hope to gloom comes early and bites hard. Those doubts she harboured have never gone away, and a combination of post-natal depression, (obviously undiagnosed) PTSD from her experiences at the front and the growing realisation that her life was, indeed, to be girdled by convention leave her morose and marooned, her life circumscribed: more children would follow, the doctor and his little lady becoming pillars of the community, she on his hand, smiling, projecting radiance through her slow descent into middle age and on, the inevitable arrival of grandchildren, infirmity, decline. 

Only Dennis’s sister, the free spirit Harri, seems to offer any escape from the stultification of Edwardian society. Harri’s husband died in the war and, despite Dennis’s attempts to have her return to the family bosom, she steadfastly retains her own household and, through that, her own identity. Returning from Harri’s to the family home is a stinging experience for Clem, a reminder of what she had hoped her life might encompass.

In this state of mental turmoil she meets Vincent, a man badly disfigured during the war, with a tin plate hiding the damage to his face. A brittle relationship develops, and here the novel twists into remarkable new territory, these damaged and yearning characters, in most regards utterly mis-matched but each recognising in the other some deep-rooted need, coming to life before us on the page. As a character study it is remarkable, beautifully handled, the pair’s arguments and misconceptions and overreactions rendered all too human through the realism of their depiction.

This section of the novel reminded me strongly of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, set in 1939, immediately before the war. Like Blasted Things, it is an intriguing character study based around unhappy and needy and disconnected people. There is in it an underlying sense of decay – social and moral – which is only hinted at in Blasted Things. The trajectory is clear, then: from 1920s Blasted Things to Hangover Square in 1939, this is how British society is going to develop, this is where we are headed. Hamilton had the advantage of writing his novel almost contemporaneously, of course, reflecting the zeitgeist around him. Glaister’s ability to enter the psyche of the fractured 1920s is impressive indeed.

In an interview, Glaister said of her work: “It doesn’t really fit into any genre. Is it historical? Is it a romance? Is it a psychological thriller?’ 

She wondered if this might somehow be a problem but for me the opposite is true: it is a strength. The novel twists the way it chooses and Glaister, the author, follows. It could have gone in a particular direction during and after the first section, in the field hospital. It didn’t. It defied convention and became something different. Difference continues throughout the novel. Nothing is predictable. Nothing is straightforward. The novel becomes more than the sum of its parts, a vivid evocation of time and period, emotion and character.


Thursday 14 July 2022

Man at Sea by Liam Bell

Man at Sea is told in two time frames, in 1941 in Malta, with the citizens enduring a Nazi and Italian bombardment, and in 1961, when Stuart, a pilot shot down and badly burned in the war returns to settle business – of his own and of his travelling partner, Beth, the nurse who cared for him while his horrific burns were tended in the aftermath of the downing. This is a beautifully paced book where the action feels steady and unforced but where, all the same, we are drawn relentlessly to a satisfying climax. 

What is most impressive about the book is the way that it gradually reveals the intimate relations of the protagonists, allowing a gentle love story to unfold, while at the same time generating the intrigue and excitement of a thriller. It’s something William Boyd does particularly well, and Sebastian Faulks. Liam Bell is clearly a gifted writer. 

In the wartime passages we have eleven-year-old Joe Zarb, living with his nanna while his father is on active duty in the Royal Navy. Joe is a bright lad, but he has a vivid imagination and he is naïve. This is drawn out delightfully with a series of word definitions that begin each chapter. Joe’s papa, Victor, did this and Joe treasures the notebooks in which his father carefully transcribed new words. Naturally, Joe tries to do the same thing but his definitions are wittily skewed, such as: 

Encrypt (verb): to hide information or important messages from enemy spies, using the locked room underneath the parish church. 

At one point, the Zarbs receive a telegram and, although Joe doesn’t get to read it, he becomes convinced it brings news of his father’s death. When he searches his nanna’s room and finds it, he discovers that his father has remarried, to an English woman called Elizabeth Blanch. This feels almost like a mini-bereavement to Joe: will his father return or will he stay with his new wife? What will their relationship be? For Joe, eleven and too young to understand, the news is difficult to assimilate. 

Meanwhile, the Sultanas, a family of refugees from Sliema, come to live with the Zarbs. In the second strand of the novel, set twenty years later, Joe has married the youngest of the Sultana children, Rosaria, little more than an infant in 1941. 

The second strand focuses on Stuart Mallinson, the disfigured pilot. He agrees to accompany his former nurse Elizabeth (Beth) Blanch to Malta. It is Beth, of course, who married Joe’s father, and although Victor later died in service, she decides finally she wishes to see her stepson. Stuart, too, has his reasons for returning to Malta: he is convinced that the accident which downed his Hurricane was not what is seemed, but an act of sabotage, and he is determined to find and kill the perpetrator. Stuart, though, has strong feelings for Elizabeth, and the urge to love and the urge for revenge set up a duality in him that he struggles to resolve. 

The story is told plainly, in fine and unflowery prose, creating a dolorous mood which suits the plot and the characters very well. It’s an impressively restrained novel, a hymn to resilience and love.

Tuesday 5 July 2022

The Knitting Station by Kirsti Wishart

The Knitting Station by Kirsti Wishart reviewed by Rob McInroy

This is the basic plot of Kirsti Wishart’s The Knitting Station: at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a woman who worked at Bletchley Park as a code breaker during the war has suffered a breakdown and is in care. Along with a group of other patients she is taken to a remote Scottish island as a rest cure. There, she becomes convinced the Russians are about to invade the island as a prelude to a full-scale invasion of the UK. Is this just another delusion created by her troubled mind or has she stumbled on a genuine plot? Can she believe the evidence of her own eyes? And, more importantly, will anyone believe what she says? 

All very interesting, you’re probably thinking, although perhaps a little Hitchcockian, formulaic. You can imagine the film version, Sigourney Weaver in the title role, the CGI, the fast cuts, tension ratcheting notch by notch until at the end Sigourney smashes through a window to confront the baddies and save the day. Job done. 

So, you might imagine, you can pretty much guess how this book is going to pan out. But, if that’s what you think, I can tell you that you’re very wrong. How do you explain the psychotic sheep? The secret plans hidden in cunning knitting patterns? The soldiers dressed as models? The magic mushroom stovies? Paramilitary knitters packing pistols? Point to any of those ideas in Hitchcock or Jason Bourne. 

Or anything for that matter. 

In an interview with Alistair Braidwood Kirsti Wishart comments on the shadow of John Buchan which hangs over the book: her central character, Hannah Richards, is, after all, an inversion of Buchan’s most famous creation, Richard Hannay, while the plot and location of the novel – a herd of mysterious sheep on an equally mysterious island – is a clear reference to Buchan’s The Island of Sheep. Buchan, of course, is a problematic character these days, with his imperialist views and casual racism and sexism. 

“I can completely understand,” Wishart says, “why people might object to Buchan’s work and they’d be right to do so! He worked for the Ministry of Information and his novels are imbued with an imperial, hierarchical view of the world we’re still in the slow process of dismantling.” 

She goes on to say she tried to re-read The Thirty-Nine Steps a few years ago but couldn’t get beyond the views expressed. All the same, she argues, Buchan “is a hugely influential figure” and it’s hard to argue with that. 

The Knitting Station is Kirsti Wishart’s response, a feminist and lesbian take on that gnarled old standard, the thriller, in which she subverts all the old tropes of the genre with joyous abandon. 

The plot is a mash-up of Ealing Comedy and James Bond, so I’ll leave it to Kirsti to describe it herself, in an interview with the Portobello Book Blog: 

It’s set in the early 1960s and features lesbians, knitting, lots of sheep and some hallucinogenic stovies (what more could you want!). Hannah Richards, a former Bletchley Park code-breaker recovering from a nervous breakdown is sent with a group of patients to the remote island of Tharn, famed for its knitwear, to undergo a form of knitting therapy. She begins to suspect the island is being invaded by Russian agents but can’t be sure if this is a symptom of her condition or a dangerous reality. It’s been described variously as ‘John Buchan on mushrooms’ and ‘Nancy Drew meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ My own description is ‘Scooby Doo on too much Irn Bru’, a daft novel for daft times. 

Well, I don’t know how can you better that, so I won’t try. This is tremendous fun, the lightness of touch and whimsy concealing a very deft authorial touch: Kirsti Wishart is a terrific writer, confident and original, happy to plough her own furrow (if that’s not a poor metaphor for a book about sheep) and write something which truly defies categorisation. 

Great stuff.