Like all good Scottish crime novels should, Denzil Meyrick’s Well of the Winds starts with a murder. This particular gruesome killing takes place in 1945, immediately transporting us back to the historic events which intertwine with a modern-day police mystery in Meyrick’s fifth novel in the DCI Daley series.
It is a combination which draws on both Meyrick’s past careers – perhaps more obviously, his time as a police officer in the Strathclyde force – and his stint as a freelance journalist, which is clear in his meticulous research of both the wartime and contemporary sections of the novel. At times, it feels slightly too researched, perhaps too much like journalism – such as when he tells us that fictional Gairsay, based on the real Isle of Gigha, was “bought by its population in 1999, a landmark purchase in Scotland that heralded similar transactions across the country” – a sentence which could have been lifted straight out of a Scotsman news story.
However, fans of the Daley series will welcome this latest instalment, set in the wake of the death of his girlfriend, the young, blue-eyed DC Mary Dunn, who was killed when her car skidded on the ice as she drove to tell her boyfriend that she was leaving him for the then-married and world weary older man, Daley.
Daley’ life is in tatters. He is grieving for Mary, enduring a messy separation from his wife and doing a fairly poor job of parenting his son, James. When he is called to get involved in the mysterious disappearance of the German-born and apparently Jewish family the Bremners on Gairsay, it is a mixed blessing. As a colleague notes, his work is all that is keeping him from sinking into despair.
It is when he tries to write female characters that Meyrick falls down. The sex scene between government big wig Timothy Gissing and his secretary Angie is excruciating, leaving her as a two-dimensional being not unlike Liz Hurley’s fembot character Vanessa in Austin Powers. Daley’s new boss, Carrie Symington, who has her own mysterious past, is also badly drawn, with the author failing to get under the surface of her personality. Even the reference to Gissing’s wife, the alcoholic but clearly well-heeled Lucinda as “no fool” with a “double first from Cambridge”, seems to come as somewhat of a surprise to the policeman who is dealing with a Ministry of Defence worker’s death, causing him to raise an eyebrow and remark that “you learn something new every day”.
A wealthy, middle class wife, with an actual education of her own? Whatever next?
To be fair, even the men are often fairly two dimensional. Gissing is a stereotypically braying toff; Welsh London-based police officer Iolo Harris yearns for the Valleys and despairs at the anonymity of London. The Gairsay police officer-cum-postman-cum-shop keeper offers some comic but unimaginative turns when he insists on putting on a flak jacket to conduct his lawful duties on the usually peaceful island.
The plot, which slips from island life into Nazi intrigue and back again, is undoubtedly compelling in parts, although it starts to drift slightly in the middle.
However, Meyrick’s portrayal of island – and rural Scottish – life is well drawn and will prove attractive to those keen to see their own home environment, albeit a fictional version, brought to life on the page.
The novel ends with a nod to extremely timely events, closing with a scene in modern-day Vienna, touching on the right-wing leanings sweeping Europe and hinting at the refugee crisis – yet linking it all right back to the Gairsay mystery.
In an interview with his publisher, Meyrick has said he believes that good crime fiction is “holding up a mirror to society”. In Well of the Winds, this is without doubt what he has tried to do.