Book review: The Goldenacre, by Philip Miller

Unusual and elegant, Philip Miller’s third novel takes the Tartan Noir genre in some new and unexpected directions, writes Allan Massie

Philip Miller
Philip Miller

The Goldenacre is a beautiful watercolour, apparently or reputedly the last work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, painted just before his death from cancer. It has hung ever since in a grand country house in the Borders, property of Lord Melrose. Now his heirs, brother and sister twins, are in the process of making it over to a public gallery in Edinburgh to offset the inheritance tax they are due to pay. Thomas Tallis, a Government official with a chequered past and a collapsing marriage, has come from London to authenticate the painting, confirming its provenance. He is a troubled man, son of a retired intelligence chief.

Meanwhile Shona Sandison, a disgruntled senior reporter on a struggling Edinburgh newspaper, a tough lady with no time for her new editor, who has plans for the paper’s digitalization, is investigating the brutal murder of a much-liked artist found with his head staved in. Burglary seems unlikely, since nothing has been stolen. The painter, however, is known to have been a compulsive and unsuccessful gambler. His death is almost immediately followed by the murder of an Edinburgh councillor who has recently been responsible for the refusal of planning permission to an ambitious but dubious development. He has been killed in the same way as the artist.

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That’s the set-up, a very promising one. The reader will realise that the two strands are interwoven some time before any of the characters do. There is a policeman with whom Shona has exchanged information in the past and does so again now, but, unlike most Tartan Noir novels, this isn’t in any sense a police procedural – a nice change. For much of the time there is no connection between Tallis and Shona. They follow different tracks, only late in the story meeting in Edinburgh’s Episcopal Cathedral.

The Goldenacre, by Philip Miller
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There is a nice cast of of well-conceived characters, among them Tallis’s Scottish Nationalist aunt and her elderly lover, a picture framer, and a deeply suspicious gallery director. Prudently, although Philip Miller – himself formerly an arts journalist – makes the art world and the questions relating to the authenticity of the Mackintosh painting wholly credible, the gallery itself is fictitious. In general, Edinburgh is well-evoked, though it is a bit surprising to find the passage from Charlotte Square to Randolph Place described as mediaeval.

The reader will suspect very soon that there is something fishy about the painting. Why else should the gallery director put so many obstacles in Tallis’s way, and why should his first visit to the house in the Borders where he hopes to see the painting prove so unrewarding? Tallis himself is a confused and unhappy man; how reliable are his suspicions?

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The reporter, Shona, could have come almost direct from central casting, but she just stops short of being a cliché, and the description of the embattled newspaper is, sadly, all too convincing, written with a suitable note of sourness. As for the central plot, it hovers on the verge of the improbable, but stops well short of the impossible. There are a few concessions to the spirit of the times – a lady, for instance, who intends to remove her family collection from the gallery because the paintings were bought with money made from slave plantations in the West Indies – but this is tolerable. What is unusual, if credible, is the author’s readiness to leave some crimes unresolved. There is, however, a nice and by no means unlikely twist to the tale, although the final chapter strains credulity. That said, not every question is answered. So some may feel unsatisfied. Nevertheless, this is for the most part a more more convincing novel than the common run of Tartan Noir.

This is Miller’s third novel, unusual and elegant. I haven’t read his previous ones, but I shall look out for them now, and look forward to his next one.

The Goldenacre, by Philip Miller, Polygon, 332pp, £9.99