The Rambling Mann

Book reviews and occasional other thoughts from writer Richard Mann.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Off Kilter, Scottish Highland Mysteries #1

Off Kilter
Scottish Highland Mysteries #1
Reviewed by Richard Mann of

AUTHOR: Hannah Reed
PUBLISHER: Berkley Prime Crime
ISBN: 978-0-425-26582-6 Trade Paperback

Two reasons argued that I would like this book.  First, I enjoy author Hannah Reed’s other cozy mystery series about a beekeeper in small-town Wisconsin.  Second, I recently enjoyed a similar book by Sheila Connelly from the same publisher.  In that one, an American woman at a crossroads in her life goes to Ireland to spend some time.  In this one, an American woman at a crossroads in her life goes to the Scottish Highlands to spend some time.  Both become embroiled in a murder.  Both books, it turns out, were enjoyable and well worth your time to read.

In this book, Eden Elliott has just sold her first book proposal. She needs to write the proposed book, a romance novel set in the Scottish Highlands, so she sets off to Glenkillen, a Highlands village a friend recommended, to research and write her book.  On the plane, she meets Vicki MacBride, and makes friends.  Both are headed for Glenkillen.

Vicki, a Glenkillen native who has been living in America for many years, has inherited a wealthy sheep farm and wool business from her father.  Unfortunately, the farm and business are being run by a half-sister and her family, who were unaccountably left out of the will.  They are not happy to lose their inheritance to this upstart American half-sister, Vicki.

Vicki and her new friend Eden discover the dead body of the local sheep shearer under suspicious circumstances.  Vicki is soon the primary suspect in the murder, and Eden feels the need to clear her new friend’s name. 

The intrigue continues from there, soon involving a host of interesting characters.  There’s Alec, a half-brother not involved in the sheep business.  Leith is a hunky Scot that Eden soon decides to use as her novel’s romantic lead. Inspector Jamieson is also a romantic interest, even though Eden is sure he’s going to railroad Vicki into a conviction for the murder.  Kirstine, the half-sister, and her husband John run the sheep and wool business and provide a lot of sinister threat to the story.  Paul Turner is the father’s attorney, who also represents Vicki, but not very well.  Eden is sure he’s secretly on Kirstine’s side and is undercutting Vicki’s interests.  Some comic relief comes from Sean, a volunteer interning as a policeman, assigned to the Inspector.  And plenty of additional people in the story provide Scottishness galore.  As I think back on this cast of characters, I find myself already waxing nostalgic—they were fine characters, easy to love or hate as appropriate.  I look forward to renewing acquaintances in the next book in the series.

Oh, yeah, there are also three admirable dogs and a cantankerous farm cat in the story.  One of them even provides an important clue.

The book, as expected from Hannah Reed, is well written.  The introductory scene effortlessly (to the reader) provides the whole set-up in just two or three pages.  It was skillfully done, resulting in a lively interest in what’s going to happen—unless, of course, you have no patience with bookish introverts like the lead character.  No, that’s not likely; who else reads this kind of book?  (I include myself in that category….) The mystery is skillfully crafted and presented and winds up in a satisfactory, logical conclusion. 

If I had a problem with the book, it would be the frequent introspective sequences when Eden tries to think through the clues and decide who done it.  For me, these passages slow things down enough for me to notice.  That’s probably because I read for the story and characters, but not so much for the puzzle.  I don’t try to solve the mystery as we go along; I wait for the author to tell me who done it.  Many mystery fans are all about solving the mystery themselves; for them these passages considering the clues are all-important.  Balancing those needs is a real challenge for a mystery author.

One last unimportant but fun comment:  the Scots language (English, of course) is full of interesting expressions.  Eden encounters a lot of them.  The author generally lets us know, one way or another, what the more mystifying expressions mean.  There was one early on that lead me a merry chase.  Leith says that none of them will “cry baurley-fummil.”  Eden says that the barley part flew right past her, but she was sure it probably didn’t involve grain.  Then we get no more clues.

Thank goodness for Google.  It took some doing, but I finally found an explanation in an e-book pdf file of a 19th century Scottish legal book.  (I just tried it again, and it was easier for some reason.)  Anyway, it means to call for a truce in wrestling—like crying “uncle” for most of us American folks.

So what do all these observations add up to?  Off Kilter is a pleasant book with elements of romance, a good, solid mystery, and a lot of education about what an American might think of the Scottish Highlands.  I really enjoyed it.  Bring on book #2!