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Thriller set in the Scottish Highlands

8th August 2022

Echo of the Dead by Alex Gray, thriller set in the Scottish Highlands

Thriller set in the Scottish Highlands

“A remote village. A ruthless killer.”

Detective Superintendent William Lorimer is in the Highlands of Scotland with his wife, and his friend Daniel, hoping for a relaxing break away from his work. He and Daniel plan some mountain climbing in the atmospheric setting of Glencoe where centuries earlier the murderous Campbell clan betrayed and slaughtered their MacDonald hosts. As the friends attempt to “bag” their first Munro, Daniel spots a body: a fellow climber who appears to have fallen to his death. All thoughts of holidays evaporate, and Lorimer assists the local police with their investigation. He quickly realises that the climber’s fatal fall on the mountain and the disappearance of an American tourist might be linked. He has to call on expertise from his Major Incidents Team colleagues back in Glasgow to solve the twin mysteries: what links the two cases and what really brought the victims here, to this remote and beautiful tourist destination?

Alex Gray’s crime novel begins in the early spring, when Glencoe’s remote, savage beauty is matched by the wild weather, and when there are relatively few tourists. Echo of the Dead is the latest in her Lorimer series of novels, but this time the DSI is away from the mean streets of Glasgow and the author conjures the stark, wild beauty of the Highlands. The book is set in Glencoe and Ballachulish, small crofting communities that have evolved to offer warm hospitality to the seasonal influx of tourists and mountaineers. It opens with an account of the historic massacre by the visiting Campbells of their MacDonald hosts – a betrayal of hospitality that is later echoed in the crimes the book describes.

Echo of the Dead is set in Scotland and its themes of betrayal and redemption are usual in Tartan Noir, but it also contrasts the traditional and modern ways of life. The locals are still preserving the crofting lifestyle but inevitably they are also users of technology and, in order to solve the crime, both local and national police on the case employ modern investigation techniques. A case in point might be the antique climbing gear cherished by one character, which contrasts with the high-tech facial reconstruction techniques used to identify another.

There are sweeping descriptions of the Highland landscapes, with its mountains, lochs and farming communities, but there are also fascinating details, such as information about the plant life and traditions of the area. The mountains loom large over the action and the author cleverly uses the point of view of foreign incomers to describe the scenery, comparing and contrasting with it that of their homelands. The dialogue is authentic, with local Scottish dialect words that are used without explanation – something that I particularly enjoyed. There’s also a rich seam of history and folklore, scattered with snippets of the songs and poems that characterise the locality.

What’s really needed on a long flight, or while relaxing at your destination, is something gripping to read. Alex Gray keeps us guessing throughout with a plot that’s reasonably straightforward but with sufficient twists and turns – much like a single-track road in the Highlands – that we are kept involved. At several points in the book, the author shares detailed insights into the thoughts and motivation of key characters, all while keeping the identity of those characters secret from the reader. It’s much harder to do this in TV or film and it gives us a wonderful sense of reader-privilege: we know things that the investigators don’t! Since we can’t actually identify whose thoughts we are witnessing, we are drawn to guess and try to solve the mystery before the detectives.

Lorimer himself is likeable and the rest of the characters are drawn in great detail, which means that we empathise with them because of their past sad experiences, or dislike them because we feel they could behave better. There are hidden secrets, and the author plays the reader skilfully, so that we can never be entirely confident that we’ve identified which of the characters deserve our loyalty. This is an engrossing and likeable read – recommended, especially for lovers of Tartan Noir.

Sue for the TripFiction Team

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