Book review: The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas-Home

A couple of years ago, after a distinguished career in journalism, Mark Douglas-Home changed tack and wrote The Sea Detective, an accomplished crime novel, with an unusual investigator, young Cal McGill, an oceanographer.

The Woman Who Walked into the Sea

by Mark Douglas-Home

Sandstone Press, 340pp, £8.99

Though Cal is the hero of this sequel, it is a rather different sort of book, the solution of the crime drawing less on his peculiar skills and knowledge of the sea’s tides and currents.

His expertise admittedly does provide an answer to the problem of the woman who walked into the sea, but, whereas The Sea Detective might be described in some respects as a hi-tech, computer-friendly novel, this new one is in a more traditional vein.

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You might call it a more conventional mystery, even perhaps an old-fashioned one of the “missing heir” variety; but it is none the worse for that. It is full of surprises and the plot is admirably developed. I suspect most readers will get halfway to the solution, but not close enough not to be surprised, and pleased, by the twist in the tale.

Set in the West Highlands, it begins, suitably, with a funeral – or rather a memorial service, cremation having already taken place in Edinburgh – for Diana, whose late husband, a lawyer, had owned the Big House. Her devoted, now retired, housekeeper, Mrs Anderson, takes up a prominent position in the church, only to be rudely, even brutally, ejected by the dead woman’s son-in-law. Retreating in humiliation to her cottage, she finds a lawyer’s letter telling her the privileged terms of her occupancy have been revoked, and she must now pay the market rent. Bitterly offended, she vows revenge, and writes and posts an anonymous letter which will open up a can of very nasty worms.

We cut to a tenement flat in Glasgow where a young woman, Violet, lives with her four-year-old daughter. She knows that she was abandoned at birth, deposited on the doorstep of Raigmore Hospital, and she has always hoped to find her mother. She receives a visit from a social worker from Inverness, Mr Anwar, who brings her the anonymous letter, which was sent to his office. This tells her her mother’s name and where she lived - a cottage near Poltown on the north west coast of Scotland. Mr Anwar tells her that he has checked and the woman named as her mother “died the day after you were abandoned at the hospital.”

Leaving her daughter in the care of her best friend, Violet sets off for Poltown, eager to learn what she can of her mother’s life and death. Cal finds himself in Poltown for different reasons, drawn there by news of a beachcomber’s find. Poltown is a grim place in beautiful scenery, built for the workforce of a NATO refuelling base, since the end of the Cold War used as overspill social housing, “the Highland equivalent of a refugee encampment” – anything but a rural Eden.

However, there is now hope for the residents in the shape of plans to build a wind farm in the bay, offering the prospect of jobs. Duncan, the eccentric beachcomber Cal has come to see, is holding out, refusing to sell his neglected farm to the developers.

That’s enough of the plot, I should think, to whet anyone’s interest. We already know who was the father of the abandoned child, and it would be a dull reader who didn’t quickly suspect Mrs Anderson in complicity with the mother’s death. And yet it does seem that Megan committed suicide – the police’s judgment at the time, though they had at first suspected Duncan of killing her.

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However, there was a witness who said she had seen Megan walking out into the sea – and she was never seen again . Yet Duncan clearly has a fixation on her. So what part did he play? And what about the people who seem determined to end Violet’s inquiries, and who also threaten Cal? Is a thuggish local crime syndicate – if that’s not too grand a word – involved? Why are some of the locals on edge? And why have Diana’s daughter and her husband turned on Mrs Anderson and provoked her to stir up trouble?

Questions, wheels within wheels, a red herring or two: Mark Douglas-Home has cooked up an involving plot, and he stirs his broth deftly, dropping enough hints to lead you to the solution, yet also perhaps wrong-footing the reader.

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This is a classic whodunit, rather than fashionable Tartan Noir, and none the worse for that. It’s a mystery from the school of Ruth Rendell and the strangely underrated Robert Barnard, rather than Ian Rankin or Denise Mina, and I can’t imagine anyone who likes them not delighting in this.