Tempted by murder

The third of four extracts from Douglas Watt’s latest historical crime novel, A Killing in Van Dieman’s Land, featuring investigative advocate John MacKenzie and side-kick Davie Scougall, set in late 17th century Edinburgh.

Douglas Watt

‘Surely a new Officer should consider it, my Lord’, said MacKenzie, reflecting that the previous Crown Officer had lasted only a few months. Dalrymple spent long hours in the

office and was often at his desk after midnight. Ordinary mortals could not put up with his demands.

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‘I find it difficult to find a reasonable candidate’, Dalrymple replied. ‘Everyone is blemished in some way. Everyone represents some faction. Any appointee will displease someone.

A Killing in Van Dieman's Land

Things are carefully balanced. I don’t want to upset any members of Parliament before the Kirk legislation is passed and we’ve raised supply. So, I need your help, MacKenzie – in an unofficial capacity, of course. I could not make you an official deputy. You are tainted by your service to the previous regime. It would ruffle too many feathers. An appointment on an ad hoc basis, however, providing authority to investigate a single case, is politically acceptable. You will, of course, be paid.’

‘I don’t need the money, my Lord’.

‘Consider it a way of serving the King’, added Dalrymple, a wry smile spreading over his cold features. ‘It would help you and your family. After all, your grandson is the son of a

Papist who died on the wrong side at Killiecrankie.’

‘My daughter is no Papist, my Lord.’

MacKenzie had to admit it was not the best start in life for young Geordie. The boy’s father was dead and would have no opinion on his son’s religious upbringing, but his brother Seaforth, a staunch Catholic, might try to interfere. ‘Let me think on the matter, my Lord.’

‘I can give you a day, MacKenzie. I need the case tidied up now.’

MacKenzie finished his wine and excused himself. He emerged from the Parliament House into a bright June morning. He walked up the bustling High Street, through the teeming Luckenbooths surrounding St Giles Kirk, towards the mass of the castle. Business was booming after the mayhem of the last couple of years. Merchants and lawyers, who mostly followed the Presbyterian interest, were content with the new regime.

William was backed by the wealthy merchants of Amsterdam and London. James faced years in exile, unless there was a miraculous turn of events in Ireland. Most Jacobites had already left for their estates in the country or joined the old King in exile; only a few of the most loyal supporters still plotted in the city. MacKenzie shook his head in despair.

Seaforth had, unsurprisingly, chosen the losing side. Fortunately, he had not committed himself one way or the other. If he had openly sided with the Jacobites, he might have faced exile and forfeiture, the Hawthorns given to some Presbyterian lackey.

MacKenzie had prevaricated over providing money. The Jacobite cause was in dire need of funds. The expense of maintaining the chief overseas was vast and causing disquiet among the clansfolk. James was the rightful King of Scotland, mused MacKenzie, but he would not take up arms to restore him. In his heart, he was convinced it was over for the House of Stuart.

It grieved him but they had to face reality. The Stuarts had been Kings of Scotland since Robert II, but recent members of the family had proved useless monarchs, except perhaps Charles II. Maybe Scotland should accept a future under the Dutchman William. MacKenzie sighed. How had it come to this? He recalled the jubilation in London on the Restoration of Charles in 1660, which he had witnessed as a young man.

MacKenzie found himself in the Lawnmarket, where tenements rose to seven storeys on both sides. He stood at the opening of Cockburn’s Wynd, a long, narrow vennel between the tenements, leading to the courtyard of Cumming’s Court about a hundred yards away. At the bottom he could see a black door. It was the front door of a five-storey dwelling, or land, called Van Diemen’s Land.

It was the house where Jacob Kerr had lived and died. He knew the building was named after a Dutch merchant called Van Diemen who had built it. Van Diemen had married a Scottish woman and come to Edinburgh to trade with his homeland. He had died childless and the property had passed through a number of owners, while keeping its name.

MacKenzie knew little about Jacob Kerr except that he was a merchant of the middle rank, a Presbyterian and regular church goer. He knew nothing else about his family or business. He turned to leave and was about to head off, dismissing Dalrymple’s request, when some impulse made him look down the vennel again.

He did not have to take the case. He disliked the Dalrymple family and everything they stood for. He missed his job as Clerk of the Session. He would never return to it unless there was a miracle. But he was already wondering what had happened behind the door. It crossed his mind that Dalrymple might be using him for some purpose. But if he took the case, would he not be using Dalrymple?

He had a sudden desire to be involved in an investigation again. He had to admit that a murder had a magnetic pull over him. He marched up the Lawnmarket, turned right into Merton’s Close and entered the Periwig, a drinking den of advocates and writers, where he asked for ink and paper.

Taking the table at the back of the low-ceilinged tavern where he usually sat, he wrote two short notes: one to Dalrymple accepting the case; the other to his friend and assistant

Davie Scougall, asking him to meet him immediately in the Lawnmarket. He called a boy to deliver the messages, sat back with satisfaction and ordered a glass of claret.

Tomorrow: The body of a merchant

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