If Eileen Dewhurst’s Phyllida Moon series was my
outstanding discovery of last year (2006), then I think
Aline Templeton’s The Darkness and The Deep
was possibly the best new (to me) individual
Britmyst book I read last year.

I am not sure if you can call the Marjory Fleming
books a series yet, as only two of them (Cold in the
Earth and the the aforementioned Darkness and The Deep)
have been published, though a third (Lying Dead)
is sceheduled for publication this March.

The series is classic (to use the term I borrowed
from someone here) sociological suspense – that is
the primary focus is with social observation. As is often
the case, this is combined with a very strong sense
of a particular location; here a part of the world
which is very dear to me (which no doubt helps) – Galloway
in South-West Scotland (actually the location is even
more specific than that so far – the Glenluce area). The only
other mystery I know of even vaguely in this location is Sayers’ Five Red
Herrings (in fact this is set in an area east of Templeton’s
setting and centres on the town of Kirkcudbright which
is a long way in terms of character from Glenluce).

The books protagonist, Marjory Fleming, is not an
outstanding character – she has no hidden vices or special
demons in her past, though plenty of ordinary problems –
husband, children, parents, work superiors and colleagues
all pose problems in various ways, not to mention of
course the main pressures which come from the cases
in which she is involved and the pressures of police-work;
these latter are vividly explored, and in an original way, in
the first book.

Cold in the Earth is set at the time of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.
Marjory’s husband is a farmer, the community is a farming
community, her friends and neighbours are farmers. The atmosphere
of this time and the reality of what it meant are brilliantly conveyed.
The police are forced by the Government to enact a deeply
unpopular (and as we now know idiotic) policy in the face
of almost total opposition among rural communities. Marjory
finds herself having to suppress demonstrations and protests
by people she knows well. Her friends shun her. Her husband
falls into a deep depression and can barely look at her as
his animals are slaughtered. All this really brings home how
the police are an arm of the state – a reality which is very
rarely seen in British mysteries – there is more real challenge to
and questioning of the role of the police here than in a
score of mean-streets, hard drinking cop stories. It is
a very good piece of writing. Unfortunately the mystery –
which also involves animals, specifically a bull – gets a bit
lost ; I must admit I can hardly recall it. There is another female
protagonist – Laura – who is trying to discover what happened
to her long-disappeared sister and this introduces fem-jep elements.
But the overall impression of a community torn apart by the
foot-and-mouth crisis is one which will remain with me for
a long time.

The Darkness and The Deep focuses on another community –
this time a small sea-port a little south of Glenluce. And it is
another community which faces a crisis. The crime here is
brilliantly conceived – indeed I am amazed no-one has used it
before (maybe they have of course!). When the towns small
lifeboat is called out the murderer changes the location of the
lights which will guide it back to harbour and lures it onto
jagged rocks – the crew of 3 is drowned (it was of
course a very stormy night – otherwise the lifeboat would
not have been out ; which makes sense!). Now there is
something appalling about this crime – that someone would
murder those carrying out heroic work (lifeboat work is
volunteer work in the UK). The lifeboat is a source of
tremendous pride to the village. But I felt as a reader a
real sense of shock and outrage at the crime – very rare.
There was a terrible real-life case of the loss of a fishing-boat
from the Isle of Whithorn which is only some 20 miles
south of Templeton’s village a few years ago so the story
has local resonance.

However there is a further point, which is that this is a
brilliant mystery plot. Because Fleming has no idea which
of the three victims the murderer was trying to kill (we fortunately
dispense with silly ideas of some psycho who has a grudge
against lifeboats). So there are three men to be investigated,
three lots of family secrets to be unearthed and so on. And
all the while the sheer scale of the tragedy for this close-knit
community is carefully observed and delineated. The nature
of the social changes taking place with the near total decline
of the fishing fleet. The alienation of the village youth. All this is
once again chronicled by Templeton.

The weakness of this book is the solution. This is really rather
commonplace, and also to some extent a cheat since it depends
on something the reader could not know. Maybe you might guess
the murderer, but I don’t think you could discern the murderer.
Butthe book as a whole remains a brilliant concept and another
excellent piece of observation.

Templeton writes in a mainstream tradition; Rendell’s later Wexford
books spring to mind as a comparison. As a mystery writer it might be
argued that she lacks as yet the ability to create a really brilliant
or surprising plot. But her sociological observation is excellent
and she shows us the pressures of policing in a different way.
Both books are strongly atmospheric, and both will, in different
ways stay with me.

(March 2007)