Book review: When the Needle Drops, by Colin MacIntyre

Music is a constant beat throughout this novel from Mull Historical Society singer-songwriter Colin MacIntyre, writes Fiona Shepherd

“Islands are supposed to be safe places,” opines Sergeant Ivor Punch. Yet much like Jimmy Perez’s Shetland or Bergerac’s Jersey, Punch’s Isle of Mull can expect a higher than usual body count now that author Colin MacIntyre has chosen to resurrect his lop-sided local policeman for the first in a new Mull Mysteries series.

Punch has already starred on page and stage in The Letters of Ivor Punch, alongside a host of island characters and loose spins on local lore – appropriately so, from an author best known for his musical alias, Mull Historical Society. However, When the Needle Drops is a different proposition, briefer on island colour, more consumed with crime. The characters in this story include a forensics officer known locally as Dave the Grave, a doctor dubbed Phil the Pill and Punch himself, nicknamed the Clock because he has one arm longer than the other.

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In this context, it’s hard to take Punch entirely seriously as a budding detective. His catchphrase (“and f***”), whimsical in The Letters…, just gets in the way here and is mercifully used less and less as the book picks up pace as a whodunit involving a series of effigies, a severed hand and a missing girl case which is not as it first appears. Just as well it is leavened with pockets of humour: “now he had three effigies in the police station. One more and he had a band.”

Colin MacIntyre PIC: Soren KristensenColin MacIntyre PIC: Soren Kristensen
Colin MacIntyre PIC: Soren Kristensen

When the Needle Drops takes place around the tenth anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster which, in this universe, claimed the life of Punch’s brother Charlie. However, it is another aeronautical event which has inspired the plot – the Great Mull Air Mystery of 1975, in which a light aircraft went missing on a night flight over Mull with the body of the pilot, Norman Peter Gibbs, lying undiscovered for months.

Like Gibbs, MacIntyre’s ill-fated pilot Xander Lowry is also a classical musician, and music is a constant beat throughout the novel. Dubbed “tartan noir with a musical twist”, its chapters are “tracks” on Side A and B, the death of another successful musician forms a sub-plot and the title refers both to the missing aircraft, nicknamed the Needle, and to the ritual of playing vinyl records.

Punch himself, though not rock’n’roll per se, is a music lover. Rod Stewart is his particular passion, though Punch is ambivalent about the Eighties material – that’s for torturing those in the cells – and there is a side order of Bob Dylan which involves a rather tortuous allusion to Blonde On Blonde. One can, however, forgive MacIntyre for referencing the actual Mull Historical Society – a genuine island organisation who have changed their name to the Mull Historical & Archaelogical Society to avoid confusion with their budding crime novelist namesake.

When The Needle Drops by Colin MacIntyre, Black & White Publishing, £9.99