#BookReview In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson

In Place of FearAbout the Book

Helen leaned close enough to fog the mirror with her breath and whispered, ‘You, my girl, are a qualified medical almoner and at eight o’clock tomorrow morning you will be on the front line of the National Health Service of Scotland.’ Her eyes looked huge and scared. ‘So take a shake to yourself!”

Edinburgh, 1948. Helen Crowther leaves a crowded tenement home for her very own office in a doctor’s surgery. Upstart, ungrateful, out of your depth – the words of disapproval come at her from everywhere but she’s determined to take her chance and play her part.

She’s barely begun when she stumbles over a murder and learns that, in this most respectable of cities, no one will fight for justice at the risk of scandal. As Helen resolves to find a killer, she’s propelled into a darker world than she knew existed, hardscrabble as her own can be. Disapproval is the least of her worries now.

Format: Hardback (336 pages) Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: 14th April     Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Crime

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My Review

The book has some really fascinating information about the birth of the NHS and the difficulty of  overcoming people’s disbelief that health services are now free. I had not come across the role of a medical almoner before and it took me a little while to work out exactly what it comprised. The author certainly succeeds in depicting what life was like for the poorer inhabitants of Edinburgh: living in crowded and often insanitary housing, existing on poor diets and lacking knowledge of how to prevent common diseases. The theme of women’s health, infertility and motherhood run throughout the book.

In the opening chapters, we learn a lot about Helen’s family and their domestic background. Helen’s determination to forge a career meets with opposition from her mother who can’t see why she would want to do anything other than start a family with her husband, Sandy. Unfortunately, there’s a big stumbling block to this, the nature of which Helen won’t fully understand until later in the book. In the meantime, she’s just patiently trying to help Sandy recover from his experiences as a prisoner-of-war. He is reluctant to talk about what he went through in any detail but it has left him with a fear of enclosed spaces.

The use of Scottish dialect, although giving authenticity, did impair my reading experience. (I appreciate this would not be the case for Scottish readers.) Sentences like, ‘She couldn’t stop the weans from palling around the back greens and the front streets, although she told Helen not to give killycodes if she could help it’ left me mystified and had me searching online for clarification. There were phrases I didn’t know the meaning of – drookit (soaking wet, drenched) or hackit (ugly) – and others that had a different meaning to the one I was used to – bunker (a table top or kitchen counter) or press (cupboard).

For me, the book never really lived up to the publisher’s description of ‘gripping’. The mystery element unfolds really slowly although it takes some interesting twists and turns towards the end of the book revealing a distinctly unpleasant side of Edinburgh life. The author slips in some neat deflections and one or two surprises.  However, the skip ahead in time at the end of the book and the late introduction of a new character made the conclusion feel a bit rushed.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton via NetGalley.

In three words: Detailed, authentic, absorbing

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Catriona McPhersonAbout the Author

Catriona McPherson was born in South Queensferry. After finishing school, she worked in a bank for a short time, before going to university. She studied for an MA in English Language and Linguistics at Edinburgh University, and then gained a job in the local studies department at Edinburgh City Libraries. She left this post after a couple of years, and went back to university to study for a PhD in semantics. During her final year she applied for an academic job, but left to begin a writing career.

These days, McPherson lives with her husband on a farm in the Galloway countryside, where she spends her time writing, gardening, swimming and running. (Bio: Goodreads/Photo: Twitter profile)

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#BookReview Traitor in the Ice by K. J. Maitland @HeadlineFiction

Traitor in the IceAbout the Book

Winter, 1607. A man is struck down in the grounds of Battle Abbey, Sussex. Before dawn breaks, he is dead.

Home to the Montagues, Battle has caught the paranoid eye of King James. The Catholic household is rumoured to shelter those loyal to the Pope, disguising them as servants within the abbey walls. And the last man sent to expose them was silenced before his report could reach London.

Daniel Pursglove is summoned to infiltrate Battle and find proof of treachery. He soon discovers that nearly everyone at the abbey has something to hide – for deeds far more dangerous than religious dissent. But one lone figure he senses only in the shadows, carefully concealed from the world. Could the notorious traitor Spero Pettingar finally be close at hand?

As more bodies are unearthed, Daniel determines to catch the culprit. But how do you unmask a killer when nobody is who they seem?

Format: Hardback (432 pages)        Publisher: Headline
Publication date: 31st March 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Traitor in the Ice is the second book in the author’s historical crime series featuring intelligencer Daniel Pursglove, the follow-up to The Drowned City.

In Traitor in the Ice we learn a little more about Daniel but much of his past still remains a mystery. In fact, some of it is a mystery even to himself. ‘I didn’t even know the year of my birth, much less the name my father had given me, if indeed any man had ever owned to being my father.’ What we do know is that he’s quick-thinking, handy with a lockpick but often, for reasons connected with his past, has to restrain his own violent instincts. ‘Killing a man was easy; forcing himself to lower the dagger was not’. In addition, his previous actions have given others a hold over him meaning he has little choice but to accept dangerous tasks such as his current mission.  And there is one particular person whose hatred for Daniel is very personal in nature. ‘He [Daniel] always comes back. A cockroach, a rat and a stinking malignant will always return, until you cut them into pieces and destroy them’. I must say I do like the way the author is drip-feeding us nuggets of information about Daniel’s past.

The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the ruthless despatch of the conspirators has only increased the sense of paranoia around the Jacobean court and in the country. Sent to try to uncover the fate of a previous intelligencer, by a combination of luck and quick-thinking Daniel successfully inveigles his way into the household of Battle Abbey. Once there he undertakes a lot of surreptitious exploration of the Abbey, which is conveniently situated close to the coast. He is surprised to find evidence of Catholic worship taking place in plain sight, making him convinced Viscountess Montague must have a protector in high places.

Talking of people in high places, surely no historical novel set in the period is complete without an appearance by one of the Cecil family; in this case it’s Robert Cecil. I actually felt some sympathy for him having to deal with the increasingly bizarre behaviour of the petulant King James I whose current obsession is the mass planting of mulberry trees. And although not central to the plot, I enjoyed the occasional glimpses into life in the Jacobean court. There is one fantastic scene depicting a particularly lavish banquet at which servers bear trays of ‘confections and cakes, roasted birds and small beasts re-dressed in their own feathers and fur, or artfully stitched together by the cooks to create piglets with cocks’ wings and heads, or salmon with rabbit legs and scut tails’. (By the way, if the word ‘sewer’ conjures up thoughts of needlework or even drains, you may be interested to read the author’s article in the April 2022 edition of Historia magazine in which she describes what it must have been like to dine at Battle Abbey in Tudor times.)  However, underneath all the outward display of excess and pleasure-seeking, there flow dark undercurrents of intrigue and political powerplay.

Traitor in the Ice is full of impeccably researched historical detail, everything from food and drink to social and religious customs. I thoroughly recommend reading the Author’s Note which reveals how many of the characters and events in the book are situated in historical fact, such as the Great Frost of 1607 which forms the backdrop to the book and inspires its title. I also loved that the glossary goes beyond brief definitions, for example explaining the role that kingfishers played in a Tudor and Stuart household or revealing more information about Sussex’s rival to the Loch Ness Monster.

Of course, there’s also a mystery to be solved which turns out to be a whole lot more complicated than first imagined involving, amongst other things, priest holes, ‘leopards’ and buried treasure. I thoroughly enjoyed Traitor in the Ice. As well as featuring some fascinating characters, such as the mysterious Cimex and Viscountess Montague’s ward, Katheryne (described as a combination of ‘virgin, nymph and witch’), it has a great sense of time and place. Plus the author leaves plenty of deliciously enticing loose ends to be picked up in future books (I hope).

My thanks to Rachel at Rachel Quin Marketing for arranging my digital review copy of Traitor in the Ice via NetGalley.

In three words: Intriguing, suspenseful, immersive

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K J Maitland Karen MaitlandAbout the Author

Karen Maitland is an historical novelist, lecturer and teacher of Creative Writing, with over twenty books to her name. She grew up in Malta, which inspired her passion for history, and travelled and worked all over the world before settling in the United Kingdom. She has a doctorate in psycholinguistics, and now lives on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon

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