REVIEW: Death on the Machar by Angus MacVicar
Kenneth Davidson expected his wedding day to be full of Joy and Happiness. He did not expect his new wife to be abducted.
Just after the end of World War II, Margaret and Kenneth Davidson are married at a parish church on Scotland’s wild western coast. With friends and family gathered to celebrate — even Margaret’s fearsome Aunt Arabella has decided that the bridegroom does come up to scratch after all — the wedding seems picture-perfect. But as the happy couple leaves the church, things begin to go very wrong…
Margaret is seized and kidnapped by two men, and before her new husband has time to react she has been chloroformed and bundled into a car. The car speeds away into the surrounding countryside. Kenneth, Aunt Arabella and others pursue them, but the cunning criminals soon throw them off the trail.
And so the chase begins, across land and sea, through the stunning but sometimes hostile landscape of western Scotland. And as that chase proceeds, the mystery deepens. Why has Margaret been kidnapped, and by whom? What is the connection between the obscure, newly-republic state of Randavia and the residents of rural western Scotland? What is the crucial secret hidden in a nearby castle, and what is the doom-laden prophecy that the sharing of that secret seems to fulfil? And what is the terrible fate that the criminals have in mind for Margaret?
Set against the imposing Scottish landscape and tinged with ancient Gaelic folklore and mystery, Death on the Machar is a classic post-war crime yarn, written by one of Scotland’s most respected and versatile authors.
I’d never heard of this author but when I saw the title, I was curious about what a “machar” is (a peninsula in Galloway in the south-west of Scotland.). Which lead to me deciding to try the book and here we are. Written in post war Scotland, right away it had me thinking of “I Know Where I’m Going” if for only the setting. Then for the thriller aspect toss in some 1938 “The Lady Vanishes” and “39 Steps” for good measure.
One would think the book would start with the thoughts of either the bride or groom but no. First we get a bit of foreshadowing about why Margaret is about to be kidnapped on her wedding day and then we are immediately introduced to an indomitable woman Miss Arabella MacPherson. She is one of those forces of nature, one of those people who intimidates their own relatives much less the evil villains but I like her. She’s got ovaries and shows them when her beloved niece gets snatched from under the noses of her nearest and dearest. It is she who realizes what is happening and puts the rescue party into motion.
Kenneth and his friend Hector might have survived the war but even they are impressed with Miss MacPherson. It takes a little bit before Richard Gillespie, a fantastic character in his own right, shifts from his default communistic feelings about the upper class to one of admiration for their pluck and spirit in chasing after Margaret but soon he and his open boat are in the thick of the action past the Mull of Galloway after the kidnappers. Hector realizes where he’s seen one of the kidnappers before and lays out the political situation in Randavia – one of those made-up Balkan countries so beloved in thriller-spy books/movies. Though how this accounts for the day’s events is still baffling to all.
Initially, I loved how MacVicar inserts bits and pieces of Scottish legends and poetry into the narrative. Here is a man who knows his native literature and people. Even Richard Gillespie’s lecture on kelp harvesting in western Scotland delivered as our intrepid band of rescuers sailed/motored after kidnapped Margaret was amusing and interesting. However later soliloquies on thresher and basking sharks, Scottish place names and the character of the Highlander added absolutely nothing to the story beyond taking up page space.
The framework upon which the Randavia part of the plot hangs is the gimme of the story and, when thought about for more than two minutes, makes no sense and seems ridiculous so after a while, I just accepted it and enjoyed the chase and personal interplays of the characters. This is where the book is the most enjoyable and the best fireworks are to be found in the relationship sparks of aristocratic Arabella MacPherson and Communist Richard Gillespie. Kenneth and Hector are little more than earnest and determined in their search for Margaret. The villains are oily and evil and Margaret is mainly a plucky heroine in distress who calls on her own MacPherson bravura in the face of a Fate Worse than Death.
The rescue is achieved via some impressive drama and dour Scottish determination. There are some “how are they going to get out of it now” moments in which the day is saved by some believable machinations with a mashie. The boat scenes invoke the treacherous tides off the west coast of Scotland – be advised not to eat much before tackling them – and in the end, law and order are restored. I’m not sorry to have tried this book but I’m not sure I’d look for more by MacVicar. C