Last month I read Hue & Cry by Shirley McKay, a historical crime novel set in sixteenth century St Andrews. Considering that her husband is a professor of Early Modern literature at St Andrews, this novel held great promise. When Hew Cullan comes home after studying in France, he finds that the university and town are disturbed by two murders and the horrific charges of the accused murderer, who happens to be an old school friend of Hew’s. Convinced of his friend’s innocence and trained in law, Hew sets out to investigate the murders and solve the mystery.
As I said, this book held great promise. The novel had the flaws of a new novel: telling instead of showing, including irrelevant scenes and dialogue, being repetitive, an unsatisfying ending, and even using the loathsome ‘breaking their fast’ instead of ‘breakfast’*. What bothered me the most was the sheer amount of prose that was not directly relevant to the story, especially the scenes with the ridiculous comic horse. The good characters were too good, the bad characters were too bad; the good characters met with little resistance wherever they went and the bad characters made mistakes left and right. I was not convinced.
Tonight she spoke at the public library to promote the second novel in the series. It was a good thing I went: those things I disliked most about her novel were not her original intent. It was the publisher that insisted that she put in the comic horse (it rang false and felt shoe-horned in, because it actually was!) and to make the main character display modern sensibilities in order to be more sympathetic to a modern audience. It was also the publisher that chose the second novel’s title, Fate & Fortune, at which I had sniffed in pure snobbery when I first saw it. I liked her working title better.
All signs point to the second book being improved upon the first, in which case I am willing to give this new and local author another try.
The Ninth Sin has an alternative review of Hue & Cry here.
* ‘breakfast’ existed in English the 15th century and in Scots in the 16th, therefore, the characters in this novel would have been more likely to say ‘breakfast’. There are too many fantasy authors trying to heighten the sense of ‘archaic-ness’ of their setting and characters by having the characters say, ‘Let us break our fast’, when in actuality this is an instance of contrived medievalism. /snob