Expected Publication: November 13
Publisher: Atria Books
In a small Scottish town, the local newspaper staff doesn’t see much excitement. But that all changes when their no-nonsense office manager Mrs. Smart is found murdered one dreary autumn night. For the staff of the “Highland Gazette,” the investigation becomes personal when the deputy editor, is accused of the crime.
It’s the late 1950s, the decade of rock n’ roll and television, and change is coming, but slowly. It’s up to budding reporter Joanne Ross to step into Mrs. Smart’s shoes and keep the newspaper office running, all while raising two girls alone. But newcomer Neil Stewart proves a major distraction for Joanne.
And what does the tragic tale of children stolen from the Travelling people more than thirty years previously have to do with this murder? In a mystery with twists and turns and no clear-cut solution, the secrets of the past must be unravelled before justice can be found.
I am not sure what I expected from this mystery novel, and I’m still left hanging as to whether that helped my rating for this.
“Beneath the Abbey Wall” contained all of my favorite elements for the perfect gothic mystery: historically placed, set in Scotland, small community, a mysterious death that throws everything off-balance. The characters were nothing spectacular, which is excellent: no one wants to read about the most perfect person on the planet. We have the traditional commanding McAllister, lead editor of the newspaper, who is great at divvying tasks but poor at expressing his emotions; the battered Joanne, fresh out of a violent marriage and devoted mother of two daughters; the charming Rob and aloof Hector; and the near-constant sobbing Betsy. Watching these employees interact, racing to share the stories with their town even when it’s a negative case about one of their own, was very entertaining and warming.
The downfall could be pointed to the characters the murder centers on: Mrs Smart, Mr Smart, and Don McLeod, the one blamed for Mrs Smart’s murder. Scott surely meant for the readers to care about Mrs Smart’s death — but not once did I feel any sadness towards her character. All that was ever said about her was that she was a good woman. What made her good? Her personal story when she was young woman was revealed, and I was sympathetic to her for that situation, but I lacked sympathy for her older character. What was it about her that people liked? This question was never fully explained. I was also supposed to resent Mr Smart, but instead I found him to be the annoying character who would pop up only once in a while to remind you of his existence, and then disappear again. And Don lacked personality. He was a drunkard, and it was all people could describe him as. How am I supposed to root for his freedom from prison if that’s the only thing the characters can say about him?
Joanne was a character that I could easily relate to It was quite eerie. I would feel bothered by her sudden fantasies over Canadian newcomer Neil Stewart — dreaming up romantic get-aways and wishing he’d say he loved her — but before I could go and judge her, I realized I’m quite similar. In fact, most women are, especially if they’ve undergone neglect. She wanted someone else to validate her existence, to make her feel wanted and cherished. When no one — apart from McAllister, which is clear to everyone else except for Joanne — offers this and a new man arrives on the scene, of course she’ll jump on the opportunity.
As far as the plotting for the mystery, I felt it dragged. At some moments, I forgot this was a mystery novel instead of a love story. Another aspect is the lack of empathy I felt for the murdered and the accused. The writing was beautiful, the relationships between the characters entertaining and exquisite, the descriptions of life in the office and life out in the Highlands lovely. But the mystery itself was left wanting.
[Read for a graduate course. Thank you to Atria Books for the ARC.]