Book review: A Step So Grave, by Catriona McPherson

This period thriller is set in the 1930s on the remote Applecross peninsula. Amateur detective and society wife of a Perthshire landowner, Dandy Gilver sets off to meet her son's prospective bride and his in-laws at their rough and ready estate, before a murder interrupts the festivities.
Catriona McPherson PIC: Ian RutherfordCatriona McPherson PIC: Ian Rutherford
Catriona McPherson PIC: Ian Rutherford

McPherson writes with a joyous feel for life on a Scottish estate in the inter-war years and employs a large but brilliantly sketched cast. There is a wheelchair-bound war hero, his glamorous wife, a genius horticulturalist and a bevy of gung-ho young folk intent on fun after the horrors of the First World War.

Between the servants and the landed gentry there is an additional class made up of younger sons, the disinherited and the no longer rich. Added to this backdrop of social line-blurring is the loosening of society’s stricter standards – barely perceptible as yet in the more remote parts of Scotland, but certainly influencing life decisions at all levels of society.

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Dandy is severely out of her comfort zone, dealing with mystical foretellings and curses in Gaelic while sorely missing the presence of her lady’s maid. She is hilariously withering about the less sophisticated aspects of life on a remote peninsula. Enduring a stormy crossing on the boat from Plockton she admits to being more nervous than her fellow travellers. “The other passengers did not look concerned. Three of them were sheep, to be fair, and sheep are famously stoical,” she says.

When the murder happens, the pattern of suspicions, motives and accusations is as complicated as the knot garden in which the gruesome discovery is made.

In the first round of questioning it seems that every member of the household suspects another, but also might have their own reasons for protecting the guilty. The mystery keeps you guessing until the end, but solving

it is the least of the reasons to keep reading.

McPherson’s wit has been compared to that of PG Wodehouse or Nancy Mitford, and her finely researched and choreographed narratives to the work of Agatha Christie. It may sound like hyperbole to the uninitiated but her writing is an absolute delight. There are a lot of Dandy Gilver novels to catch up on and winter is setting in – these are the perfect reads for a night by the fire.

A Step So Grave, by Catriona McPherson, Hodder & Stoughton, £20.99