Book review: Ghosts in the Gloaming, by Denzil Meyrick

Denzil Meyrick’s latest dispatch from the fictional town of Kinloch is splendidly absurd and delightfully old-fashioned, writes Allan Massie

Denzil Meyrick is well-known for his crime novels featuring DCI Jim Daley, and set in Kinloch, a thinly disguised Campbelltown and the Mull of Kintyre. His short stories and novellas like this one are in a lighter vein. They owe something to the Highland and Western Isles tradition of oral storytelling, something also to early 20th century writers like JJ Bell, Neil Munro – especially his Para Handy tales – and even to Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore. You may say they are a bit old-fashioned. All the better for that, one may reply.

There has been a fine flowering of Scottish fiction in the last half-century, much of it compelling and admirable. Not a lot of it, one has to say, raises a laugh. This is odd when you think of the long line of Scottish comics, stretching from Harry Lauder and Will Fyfe, Harry Gordon, Chic Murray, to Rikki Fulton, Billy Connolly and beyond. It is a rare delight, therefore, to come on a book like this one which repeatedly had me laughing aloud.

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It is of course a whimsical tale. In 1920, Sandy Hoynes is a handsome 16-year-old fisherman who has just, he believes, passed his navigation exam. But he has been cheated just as, this same day, he is cheated in a rowing race by another boy, Dreich MacCallum, who almost immediately leaves the village in search of fortune elsewhere. Forty-eight years later he returns, as Captain MacCallum, seemingly rich and in possession of a fine cabin-cruiser. Sandy in contrast is now pot-bellied and gray-haired, owner of a fishing-boat, the Girl Maggie (a tribute to Para Handy). It has seen better days, as indeed has the resourceful Sandy himself. The boat is in poor repair, crewed only by him and young Hamish, a slow boy who is styled “first mate.”

Denzil Meyrick PIC: Kirsty AndersonDenzil Meyrick PIC: Kirsty Anderson
Denzil Meyrick PIC: Kirsty Anderson

The news of Dreich’s return has had him take to his bed for days, and he rises only when his wife sends Hamish to persuade him to get up. He’s been, she says, in such a poor state he hasn’t even taken a sup of whisky for days. Meanwhile his boat has been laid up, awaiting a repair, the necessary piece for which arrives just as Sandy meets the now cocksure Dreich for the first time since they were boys. Dreich sneers at Sandy’s old tub, but, the repair effected, Sandy and Hamish head for the sea-loch, the engine rattling loudly. Then, mysteriously, a large metal object flies off and, returning to earth, smashes into Dreich’s cabin-cruiser, destroying it.

An accident, doubtless – and one for which the author happily offers no explanation. Threats of legal action follow. Will Sandy, for all his resourcefulness, find himself bankrupt? He consults the local lawyer, Mr Campbell, a cigar-smoking octogenarian whose office desk and floor are covered with documents and forgotten papers. He is another very nice comedy act – a perfect part, one might say, for the late John Laurie, Sergeant Fraser in Dad’s Army, or indeed for Rikki Fulton. While he sets surprisingly to work, Sandy plans to lie low for a few days. What follows is splendidly absurd and delightfully old-fashioned. It’s that rarity now: a happy book, one that should find its place under countless Christmas trees. In this vein, Meyrick has a delightfully light touch. He delights in his characters and the places he puts them in. And how does this merry canter end? How does Sandy meet the challenge of Dreich MacCallum? Well, the answer may be left to Oscar Wilde: “the Good ended happily and the Bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

Ghosts in the Gloaming, by Denzil Meyrick, Polygon, 166pp, £9.99