Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mystery Settings and Travel Destinations

I posted not long ago about how I've enjoyed reading Dan Brown's novels as travel guides for Paris and Rome. We're currently planning a trip to Scotland where Dan Brown doesn't have many locations -- apart from the Rosslyn Chapel, which we might try to see.  So I went hunting for some fiction set in the highlands and islands, just to get a feel for setting and to heighten the anticipation.

I started with an audible credit to spare, and found a recorded version of Anne Cleeves' novel, "Dead Water." I've seen this mystery described as "the 5th book in a quartet," as the author has four previous novels in the series. All are set in the Shetland Islands. I would have started with the first one, but for some unknown reason only "Dead Water" was available on the audible site. I particularly wanted to listen to it (rather than read) because I wanted to hear the accents, cadence, and phrasing.

The narrator gave me what I was hoping for -- a sense of atmosphere -- and overall, I quite enjoyed the book. In particular, it gives what seems to be a credible feel for life in a constrained but no-longer-so-remote area where traditional fishing and farming, tourism, and a high-tech oil industry all intersect. The  mystery plot flowed from the well-drawn characters and setting without being obvious or relying on a contrived twist.

Even though I'm now thoroughly spoiled for some major events of earlier books, I'll probably pick up e-book versions of the first one or two in the series to take along with me. I think they'll prove diverting while waiting around in airports or ferry terminals, or just relaxing on a rainy afternoon.

My second attempt, "The Orkney Scroll," by Lyn Hamilton, was somewhat less successful. This novel is also part of a series -- featuring Toronto antiques dealer, Lara McClintoch -- who travels the world on buying trips and solving crimes as she goes. Again, I jumped into the middle of series without having read earlier books. In "The Orkney Scroll" she's trying to track down the origin of a fake Art Nouveau writing cabinet and uncover a swindle that led to a murder.

What I enjoyed about the book was a great look at the setting. Lara manages to take in many of the important archaeological sites on Mainland (Orkney) while pursuing her own quest. Her enthusiasm for the island and its inhabitants is engaging. The modern story is interwoven with a tale supposedly from the Orkneyringa Saga -- a real Norse saga about the Viking Earls of Orkney, though I've no idea whether a "Bjarni the Wanderer" appears in it. I actually found a translation of the Orkneyringa Saga available online, and may have a go at reading it.

I also enjoyed learning a bit about Art Nouveau furniture -- in particular, that Glasgow Scotland was a major center of the style movement. The mystery itself, I'm sorry to say wasn't as successful for me. Apart from Lara herself, who is engaging enough, most of the characters were on the flat side, and the story wrapped up with a few too many coincidences forced together. Still, next time I'm planning a trip I may have a look to see whether  Lara Hamilton has been antique hunting in my chosen destination.


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