So says Val McDermid about Manda Scott’s debut suspense novel, Hen’s Teeth, the first novel to feature Dr Kellen Stewart.
But she might well have been discussing Kellen herself.
Indeed, she is the draw to the series, in this reader’s opinion; it’s Kellen’s sharp and evaluative manner that brings the energy to the story, that crackling energy.
Kellen is now a practicing therapist in Glasgow, but once she studied to be a medical doctor. Not in anatomy though, not like her friend, Lee.
Lee Adams is introduced to the reader along with Glasgow, at the Man on Byres Road, where they serve a mean vegetarian haggis at its rough-pine tables.
“Lee is not crazy, whatever Caroline Leader might think.”
It’s always promising to have someone introduced as “not crazy”, and certainly Lee is as compelling a character as Kellen herself, though she is not at the heart of the narrative.
And, in this story, organs matter. In autopsies, in particular. (Which Lee, not Kellen, will conduct.)
Kellen could not stomach the anatomy program, literally.
“If you can make the long walk up to the lecture theatre on the top floor without reviewing breakfast en route, then there’s a fair chance of surviving the real-life equivalents in the surgical theatre. Everyone else had better stick to medicine.”
But she is forced to return to that staircase, with all its horrors behind glass en route, during the course of solving the crime in Hen’s Teeth.
But that’s easier said than done — that solving — easier wished for than accomplished.
Kellen is a therapist, not a sleuth, and even though it’s readily apparent that she and Lee have gotten into their share of trouble in the past, even though they both possession great gumption, the situation gets much worse than anyone is expecting.
“Small spasms of paranoia vied with simple disbelief and an overwhelming urge to return to the normality of everyday life.”
That’s understandable, and one of the elements of this novel that contributes to its success, the sense that the reader can imagine what everyday life would have been at the farm where Caroline and Bridget lived (where Bridget and Kellen used to live together).
The farm, with its sprawling lands and horses, brings Glasgow off the page.
When MacDonald brings a young sheepdog out to the property, Caroline is keen to offer her a home there, all the more so when she realizes that the dog’s name is T’îr.
“Tîr na’n Og. The Land of Youth. It’s what Bridget used to call the old grave mound with the cairn in the beech wood…Tan’s favourite place. We have to take her, Kellen. It’s perfect.”
The sense of an enduring, haunting, magical land both contributes to a sense of uneasiness and a sense of security, simultaneously.
“The cairn still stands at the end of the grave mound: a conical beehive reaching up to my shoulder, with a crust of ancient moss and flat, spreading lichen so thick that the stones could crumble and the shape would stay.”
The sense of place is strong, but established in a straight-forward, no-nonsense manner, which suits Kellen and Lee.
“I undressed messily, draping my clothes, unfolded, over the chair by the bed, and crawled under the primrose printed duvet. Slipping a hand under the pillow, I wrapped my fingers round the vial of blood that had come back with me from the cairn.
It didn’t stop the nightmares but it added an interesting edge.”
Ultimately this mystery is rooted in relationships, in every way, be those relationships with the land or between people or between four-leggeds and two-leggeds, between furred, skinned and feathered.
It’s a story that simmers along with a sense of urgency, against a backdrop of rural life so rich that you can almost smell it, and manages to explore conflicts of all sorts: the delicate power struggles between the sexes, between partners, between local/regional authorities, between corporate/public interests, between rural/urban lifestyles, between cats and dogs who all want the warmest spot around the Rayburn.
It was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 1997; I bought my copy when it was first published in Canada, in 2000, paying close to a hard-cover price for a little mass-market pocketbook. And then waited more than ten years to read it. That’s “not crazy” either.
Have you read any of Manda Scott’s books?