There is a tendency to set murder mysteries and crime novels in urban jungles these days.
The Reek of Red Herrings by Catriona McPherson is a contemporary example of how authors can use the traditional “village” setting successfully to demonstrate their overall theme. A village location can be far more than just a pretty background for foul deeds and thrilling action.
Here the village represents not simply a closed community with its own set of beliefs and rules, a world in miniature, but mirrors the tightly packed herring barrels of the book title, where layer upon layer of creature must be exposed and investigated before our sleuths can get to the bottom of the mystery.
The dark, winding, narrow and inhospitable streets of Gamrie, a village snaking up a steep crag overlooking the sea, are as confusing as the villagers’ family names and hereditary connections, causing sleuths Dandy and Alec to constantly lose their way in this investigation – intellectually, ethically and physically.
Even the architecture of Gamrie’s houses is baffling to the extreme. Several families live in one multi-story house, but the division of the rooms and different levels makes no sense to outsiders. The village’s precarious location on the crag overhanging the sea poses a constant threat to human and animal lives, just as uncovering the truth does, because revealing it will cause a scandal that will wreck the fishing community’s livelihood.
A Barrel of fishy Goings-on
Set in 1930, this wonderfully atmospheric and dark murder mystery begins when amateur detectives Alec Osborne and Dandy Gilver are called in by the boss of a Banffshire fishing fleet to investigate on the quiet the macabre appearance of body parts in his herring barrels.
Married forty-something Dandy Gilver is glad to get out of a boring Christmas get-together with some of the dullest elements of her family; her handsome and much younger friend Alec Osborne is alone in the world, so always ready to plunge into sleuthing at a moment’s notice. Before Dandy’s husband Hugh can utter any kind of seasonal protest, the two detectives are off to the northeast coast of Scotland for a new adventure.
Their latest client cannot risk going to the police but must find out how, whether due to accident or foul play, human remains got among the herrings. So the respectable Mr. Birchfield summons the two amateur sleuths to his Aberdeen harbour office and asks them to investigate undercover in the village of Gamrie, the origin of these particular fishy barrels.
Posing as brother and sister, the two detectives plus Dandy’s elderly Dalmatian Bunty promptly head to Gamrie, where they are forced to stay in a cheerless hotel called the Three Kings. It’s run by mad-as-a-hatter landlady Miss Euphemia Clatchie, the first in a long line of eccentric local characters. Euphemia is also the first character who serves beautifully as a suspect in this barrelful of red herrings. The two detectives go undercover as a couple of philologists, or philly-oolies, as the fishing community calls them.
By asking pertinent questions among local households what ancient customs fishing folk are still practicing, the two sleuths try to discover, if a murder took place or whether Mr Pickle, the chopped-up man in Mr. Birchfield’s herring barrels, was simply the victim of an accident at sea and got into the barrels by a series of unfortunate circumstances.
Although initially these old customs seem quaint and rather sweet, the more our sleuths delve into the traditions of Gamrie, the more they are appalled by the sinister implications of some of these customs. The brains of Gamrie’s inhabitants, one feels after reading a few chapters, are just as pickled as herring and as inverted as the words philologists and philly-oolies!
Leading us by the Nose from one foul Stench to another Horror
If the thought of body parts among the herrings makes you shiver, wait until you read the bit where Dandy follows husband Hugh’s advice and visits a Gamrie curio museum. Naturally, the contents of that place would have been a source of wonder and pleasure for emotionally stunted Hugh Gilver!
For everyone else, however, private museums devoted to the art of the taxidermist, are quite simply horrific. This reviewer once went to such a place in Arundel, Sussex, in the late 1970s and still has nightmares of squirrels posing in 18th century silk breeches several decades later.
Just as Agatha Christie often uses a cosy village location and manor house as background for her murder mysteries, McPherson introduces the “them and us” theme into her novel. Here a mansion-cum-museum at the edge of the village mirrors the closed village world of Gamrie.
Just like Gamrie, the museum is also a place where not everything is as it seems. The Searle brothers, who run the museum, are at first glance kind old gentlemen, but at second glance they are something else entirely. See how McPherson uses the different sections of the museum to build up her horror effect and how she changes the direction of her novel. It’s a fabulous use of location by a writer.
With each new room of horrible exhibits we are given insight into the Searle Brothers’ mindset and catch a glimpse of their ultimate goal. Leaving behind the genre of the cozy at the doorstep of the museum, McPherson takes the reader by their clammy hand and leads them ever so gently into a Gothic horror story!
It’s another example of using mirror images in a novel to drive home one’s overall theme, in this instance: living in a narrow and confined environment is apt to unhinge the mind.
The museum visit introduces us to a new mystery serving as the sub-plot; here we have smelly dead things not contained by a barrel but presented in glass cases. Both mysteries have the foul stench of fishy business about them and before Dandy and Alec can say “kippers”, they are investigating the possibility of serial killings.
The Reek of Red Herrings is McPherson’s most ambitious novel to-date, starring hordes of colourful characters and presenting the reader with two murder plots simultaneously; as the title says, it reeks of red herrings and there are several barrels of them standing by in Gamrie.
Infused with McPherson’s very own brand of black humour, the story plods along like a put-putting old trawler in heavy sea, hampered by rough weather and the two sleuths’ inability to understand ancient Doric lingo.
This reviewer often found herself laughing out loud at Dandy’s attempts to impress Alec with her “translations” into English, which then turn out to be totally wrong, to the great amusement of Gamrie’s fishermen and women.
The sleuths’ inability to understand Doric is yet another metaphor: Dandy’s and Alec’s modern minds also fail to understand what drives stuck-in-time local minds. This has serious consequences for their investigation.
McPherson must have spent ages researching all the different customs, wedding lore and superstitions among early 20th century fishing communities, because she delights us with a veritable flood of them.
The abundance of same name individuals in the village, which are as bewildering to Dandy and Alec as they are to the reader, serves rather well to demonstrate how inbred the place really is and therefore, how unhinged Gamrie is as a community.
Gamrie’s tradition of “handfasting” young couples seems nothing more than a hypocritical excuse for these “pious” villagers to sleep around before settling on the financially most advantageous partner. Greed and material advantage are the basis for marriage in Gamrie, not love or companionship. Cloaked in a mantel of folklore and brandishing before them their god-fearing Doric expressions, which are nothing more than a barrel of lies, these villagers are unwilling, not unable, to rise over senseless superstitions.
Having recovered her ethical stance during a year’s absence, Dandy states quite clearly to one villager at the end of the novel: ” we won’t return”. Our sleuths wash their hands of this fishy community and walk away for good.
A Mystery as changeable as the Weather
We are treated to the whole range of Scottish climate in this village, ranging from drizzle, fog and sheets of rain to raging blizzards, thunder and lightning and even mudslides and tsunami-like waves. Naturally, the weather serves to make the village location more atmospheric and “gothic” for us, but as with the streets and buildings of Gamrie, the weather serves as a triple-layered metaphor and is not just there for decoration.
Firstly, harsh climate demonstrates how precarious the existence of such a small community is and how dependent small communities like Gamrie are on each other.
Secondly, the weather undermines our sleuths’ efforts to discover the truth about the chopped-up man in the barrels at every turn. Repelled physically by the rain and snow, the cold and the wind, our sleuths are also prevented intellectually from finding out the truth, because the locals’ attitude towards them is as changeable as the weather. One minute Gamrie’s residents are talkative and co-operative, the next moment residents button their lips and allow gale force wind to slam doors shut in our sleuths’ faces.
Simply getting about from A to B to interview suspects is a struggle. And when our sleuths do manage to leave their hotel, a gale drives them like helpless autumn leaves to places they don’t necessarily want to investigate. Just when Dandy and Alec think they’re hot on the trail of unravelling the mystery of Mr. Pickle, they lose their footing on an icy patch or a cold breeze blows them off course and they drift off into a new direction on an icy float of more misconceptions and deceit.
Finally, Gamrie’s temperamental climate prompts readers to suspect malevolent undercurrents are driving the lives of these fishermen and women, but when one is tossed and turned about in heavy seas, where does one turn for dry land – and a stable theory of who committed a crime? Banffshire’s changeable weather mirrors the ever-changing theories our sleuths, and the reader, develop about the case.
Doggedly carrying on
Unusually for a McPherson novel, the last chapter sees us back in Gamrie, a year after the dramatic events. Bunty has died of old age and a new puppy is wrecking the car seats, as Alec brings the car to a screeching standstill in Gamrie harbour. There is no feeling of a job well done with the closure of this murder investigation and the nature of the crimes mean there cannot possibly be a happy ending for Gamrie either. However, the community carries on doggedly, using superstition and folklore to block out reality.
Dandy and Alec carry on doggedly with another case, blocking out how the stay in Gamrie has highlighted that their relationship is stuck in neutral after eight years as fellow sleuths. They may have gone to the village weddings as the mirror image of best man and maid of honour, but they are far, far from being the happy couple.
We are spared Dandy’s pain over losing her beloved dog Bunty, but are left to wonder if horrible Hugh shot her behind the woodshed, as he keeps threatening at the start of the novel. The arrival of a new (male) puppy on the scene suggests that Dandy is moving on with life, but her ambivalence about the puppy mirrors her ambivalence about her marriage to Hugh.
The reader suspects this puppy may be one of Hugh’s ill-conceived ideas, an animal foisted on Dandy against her will. The naughty behaviour in the car suggests this is a dog in no way adequate to follow in Bunty’s well-behaved paw prints.
Bunty was, as Dandy tells us towards the end of the book, “quite the most comforting creature ever born”. One feels therefore, Dandy will forever be deprived of Bunty’s spotted kind of emotional support. It’s a sad ending all round, and not just for dog-lovers.
A Whiff of new Horizons
The only true sliver of hope at the end of dark and macabre adventure is the fact that Alec and Dandy’s relationship is blossoming into something resembling romance. Maybe Bunty had to die to make way in Dandy’s heart for somebody else? Who knows, the next book may well see Hugh Gilver’s long overdue demise! Perhaps he’ll be washed away by Gilverton’s infamous drains, drowning in a pool of mud as dull as the life he’s led his wife.
This reviewer got a little carried away when she read about cosy get-togethers in Dandy’s hotel room at the dismal Three Kings…Alec and Dandy sitting next to one another on her bed, two pairs of naked feet frolicking in hot water buckets…
Hold on to your cloche hats, ladies, don’t get carried away, for this is as steamy as it gets. You won’t be seeing Dandy rolling round in 50 shades of Scottish heather with toy boy Alec here!
But this was a clever way of using the Gamrie hotel room location as a metaphor for the sleuths’ deepening relationship. In earlier books we saw Dandy and Alec standing about uncomfortably whenever Alec had to visit Dandy’s bedroom to discuss their current case in private. The vastness of Dandy’s Gamrie hotel room and the lack of furniture – there is not even a chair in her bedroom – mean that the two sleuths have to come closer physically (and therefore emotionally) and sit together on Dandy’s bed or they can’t have a private conversation. Brilliant stuff.
Fortunately, there are enthusiastic foxtrottings at Gamrie weddings that permit Alec to put his arms around Dandy in public. In his chaste capacity as her pretend brother. A boisterous dance through Gamrie’s icy streets leads our sleuths all the way to a snug wedding bed, complete with curtains, a bottle of whiskey and a lump of cheese on the pillows to sustain an energetic couple throughout the “doings”. Unfortunately, Dandy and Alec are in the company of the entire village population and not free to partake of such endearing village customs. Bother!
Still, this positive use of village infrastructure gives romantically inclined readers hope there will be 50 shades of “goings-on” in future McPherson novels.
Murder most foul
To sum up: in this novel the use of the village location is as multi-layered as a barrel full of herrings and as complex as North Sea marine life. It’s not a picturesque pastoral village setting à la Jane Austen, but a hostile environment where mankind thrives at its peril. Narrow streets harbour narrow minds in Gamrie; this cut-off seaside community is awash with mental disorders, family feuds, greed and envy.
And if, like this reviewer, you disliked salted herrings before you read this book, you’ll detest the things even more, when you’re done with the novel. It’s not so much a question of The Reek of (Red) Herrings that made this reader feel queasy reading Catriona McPherson’s book, it’s the foul stench of human behaviour. The novel deserves more than five stars if Goodreads’ rating system would only allow it. It certainly merits one star for each herring barrel containing parts of Mr Pickle.