Book review: 1588: A Calendar of Crime, by Shirley McKay

A novel composed of five linked short stories, 1588: A Calendar of Crime is the sixth in the series of Shirley McKay's Hew Cullan mysteries. It is set in St Andrews, and framed about the term days of the old Scottish calendar: Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas, Martinmas and Yule. Hew Cullan is a scholar and lawyer, immersed in the life of the university, a master of investigation with a penetrating intellect and the gift of common sense, priceless in an age of superstition when many believe in ghosts and demonic possession. 'I have often held,' he says, 'that there are no spirits walking in the night. There are disordered shades of men's imaginations, and the mischiefs played on them, but there are no ghosts that cannot be unmasked by a rational mind.'

Shirley McKay
Shirley McKay

He has need of his good sense for he lives in a time of turmoil. The Protestant Reformation is only a generation old; there are still Roman Catholics and crypto-Catholics, some of whom may be sheltering priests. There is fear of spies, and of the remnant of the Spanish Armada making its escape up the North Sea coast and round the Northern Isles. The university itself is divided and embattled, struggling to maintain its academic freedom. McKay has thoroughly researched the period and the town. Hers is the best kind of research, thoroughly absorbed and deployed naturally and unobtrusively. The dialogue is good, with a judicious admixture of convincing Scots. (The students are required to converse in Latin, but she doesn’t take authenticity that far.)

There is comedy too. A Lord of Session is sent to head a commission responsible for auditing the university. The commission is not welcome. He is seen to be behaving strangely, dancing naked in the grounds of St Leonard’s College. Then he is found apparently dead, still unclothed. Consternation follows; what’s to be done? Two enterprising students offer to take the body in a wheelbarrow and dump it in the neighbouring New College. Then the body disappears. Has Lord Sempill been translated into a rook? Pending judgement, the rook is confined in a cage. Lord Sempill’s ambitious deputy is certain the rook is indeed Lord Sempill. How will Cullan solve this mystery? McKay recounts the story gravely; that’s to say she understands why people should have believed this nonsense; and though it may be nonsense, she has sufficiently penetrated the temper of the time to make their conviction credible.

Some of the comedy is bitter. A man comes to Cullan to make his will, explaining as he does so that his will may be hard to prove and may be contested because “there is a possibility that later on today I may kill a man. And, if I do, I expect to hang for it”. This may seem absurd. It is absurd. Yet McKay has so thoroughly imagined her creations, has entered so fully into the mind and spirit of the time, that one no more questions this than Cullan himself does – though, sensibly, he tries to dissuade his client from taking this desperate step.

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    McKay is excellent on atmosphere, and re-creates the life of the small university and market town and its people with imaginative sympathy. The townspeople ring true and they are recognisably the ancestors of Fifers today, stubbornly independent. She is good on weather, trades, inns and hovels, food and drink, as well as the university and its intellectual problems. Like all the best historical novelists she not only paints a vivid picture of times past that rings authentically, but reveals how this past informs later ages, right up to the present day. She tacitly invites us to question our own assumptions. The past is, of course, as LP Hartley put it, “a foreign country” where they do things differently, but the emotions which provoke action are no different, and if we find the beliefs of the past bizarre, we are invited to wonder what posterity will make of ours. In these absorbing and scholarly stories, McKay does more than shine a light into the darkness of 16th century Scotland, but that is her first purpose and she does so very enjoyably.

    *1588: A Calendar of Crime, by Shirley McKay is published by Polygon, 335pp. £14.99