Denzil Meyrick made his name as a novelist in the gritty field of Tartan Noir, but these days he is showing himself to be adept at spinning much gentler yarns. A Toast to the Old Stones is the second book in his Tales From Kinloch series, following last year’s A Large Measure of Snow, and this time two fishermen from the fictional town on the Mull of Kintyre are attempting to transport an illicit stash of whisky to the nearby village of Firdale, where prices at the local hotel have recently gone through the roof.
The year is 1968, and while sixty-something skipper Sandy Hoynes despairs somewhat of his first mate Hamish – still unmarried in his thirties and given to singing Beatles songs while inebriated – he will need his help if he is to carry out his errand of mercy aboard his seen-better-days boat, Girl Maggie. Meanwhile, customs official Alan Marshall has received an anonymous tip-off that something suspicious might be afoot, so he sets off from Glasgow in the high-speed cutter Diane intent on bringing the perpetrators to justice. Marshall may have risen up the ranks in recent years, but he began his career in Kinloch, and from the start he suspects that Hoynes must be involved.
So far, so Whisky Galore, but Meyrick adds an extra layer of intrigue to his tale by introducing an element of the supernatural. For a start, the events of the novel – really a novella at 158 pages – take place around the old New Year, 12 January, a time when the senior fishermen of Kinloch traditionally journey by boat to the two Auld Stones above a bay called Smugglers’ Hole, leaving tributes of whisky and cold, hard cash in exchange for good fortune in the year ahead. Additionally, in the days leading up to this year’s pilgrimage there have been various sightings of a ghostly Viking longship in the waters around Kinloch, complete with burning braziers and crewed by sinister-looking Vikings. As Meyrick makes clear in his prologue, this is a story about the idea that we all have “the ability to see and feel beyond ourselves… especially when we find ourselves in a place where past and present meet, where time, it seems, stands still.” And it is also a story about the so-called “Thin Places”, where the past and the present sometimes draw close to each other, and even occasionally overlap.
Stylistically-speaking, Meyrick isn’t exactly setting out to break new ground here, but this is still a wonderfully atmospheric tale, best consumed on a chilly winter’s night in front of a roaring fire with a bottle of single malt close to hand. That said, there are one or two annoying imperfections that could perhaps have been ironed out at the editing stage. One of these concerns the plot. At a key moment in the story, for some inexplicable reason, the crew on board the customs boat stop using the radar they’ve previously been relying on, with significant consequences. Given all the other supernatural goings-on, perhaps it would have been more convincing for it to mysteriously go on the blink, rather than for everyone to simply forget about it.
The other issue has to do with dialogue. As the book progresses, and the author hits his stride, the conversations flow increasingly smoothly. In the early chapters, though, there are one or two slightly jarring lines where the voice of the narrator seems to get mixed up with those of his characters. When Hamish’s domineering mother refuses him seconds of fish pie on the grounds that “once you’re by thirty the least morsel can add the weight” she sounds believable; when she tells him that “the combination of a receding hairline coupled wae a burgeoning belly isn’t something likely to turn a girl’s head”, though, not even the colloquial “wae” can mask the slightly awkward formality of the rest of the line.
These are minor faults though – much like the Thin Places, this book offers a brief, magical escape to a slower, simpler time.
A Toast to the Old Stones, Polygon, 158pp, £9.99
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