On a remote Scottish island, American antiques dealer Kate Hamilton wrestles with her own past while sleuthing a brutal killing, staged to recreate a two-hundred-year-old unsolved murder.
Autumn has come and gone on Scotland’s Isle of Glenroth, and the islanders gather for the Tartan Ball, the annual end-of-tourist-season gala. Spirits are high. A recently published novel about island history has brought hordes of tourists to the small Hebridean resort community. On the guest list is American antiques dealer Kate Hamilton. Kate returns reluctantly to the island where her husband died, determined to repair her relationship with his sister, proprietor of the island’s luxe country house hotel, famous for its connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Kate has hardly unpacked when the next morning a body is found, murdered in a reenactment of an infamous unsolved murder described in the novel—and the only clue to the killer’s identity lies in a curiously embellished antique casket. The Scottish police discount the historical connection, but when a much-loved local handyman is arrested, Kate teams up with a vacationing detective inspector from Suffolk, England, to unmask a killer determined to rewrite island history—and Kate’s future.
Eudora Welty once said, “Every story would be another story and unrecognizable if it…happened somewhere else.” I’ve been thinking about setting recently because I was asked to be on a panel entitled “Murder with a Sense of Place” at the annual mystery convention Malice Domestic.
My fellow panelists and I have written stories that take place around the world—from a small town in Indiana (J. C. Kenney) to a sleepy English village called Nether Monkslip (G. M. Malliet) to a country estate in Hampshire (Marty Wingate) to Sienna, Italy (Sarah Wisseman), and finally to the western isles of Scotland (me).
Setting, the place where the action happens, has been called a character in its own right because location, to a great degree, dictates the characters and the plot.
My debut mystery, A Dream of Death, takes place on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides, an island with a long history going back to the clan uprisings and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Not surprisingly, island history plays a prominent role in the plot. As does the island setting. An early snowstorm (uncommon at sea level) cuts the islanders off from the mainland, effectively limiting the number of suspects. Kate Hamilton, an American antiques dealer, and her fellow sleuth, Detective Inspector Tom Mallory from Suffolk, England, are outsiders. This adds complications because they don’t understand the local undercurrents that led to murder. But it also gives them a degree of objectivity and perspective.
In the Golden Age of Mystery, the settings were often small, isolated communities, and the sleuths were often outsiders. With a handful of exceptions, all the Miss Marple mysteries were set in a village or country house. Even the Londoner Hercule Poirot was often called away to the countryside or to some far-flung location lacking the creature comforts of the metropolis.
Setting also dictates weather. A story set in New Orleans, for example, will probably mention mildew and sweating. A mystery set in Finland is sure to mention snow and saunas. My story takes place on the Isle of Glenroth at the end of October and beginning of November. The island teeters between autumn and winter, a handy metaphor for my protagonist’s life as she teeters between a bleak widowhood and the possibility of romance.
Setting also affects details such as dialect, food, customs, and manners (think of a character from the Bronx transplanted to the deep south). The kind of story an author wants to tell will determine the setting. A hard-boiled police procedural usually features an urban setting. A cozy mystery with the small-town girl returning home to take over her family bakery needs a village.
Why Scotland? I’m often asked. Two reasons.
First, my paternal grandparents were Scottish. I grew up with the sound of the brogue in my ears and the taste of shortbread in my mouth. From childhood, I heard about famous Scots heroes, slept under the family tartan, and listened to hymns sung to the bagpipes. Scotland is in my blood.
Second, I’m a self-confessed and unrepentant Anglophile. Writing a book means spending time—lots of time—in the story world, and there’s no place on earth I’d rather spend time than a historic island in the Inner Hebrides.
Unless it’s a fictional village in rural Suffolk, England—which is where fate (and an attractive detective inspector) take Kate next (A Legacy of Murder, October 2019).
What novel have you read recently that whisked you away to a setting so vivid you felt as if you’d been there? Do you have favorite location for the books you read? Which actual place or places in the world have shaped your life?
About the Author
Like her main character, Connie Berry was raised by charmingly eccentric antique collectors who opened a shop, not because they wanted to sell antiques but because they needed a plausible excuse to keep buying them. Connie adores history, off-season foreign travel, cute animals, and all things British. She lives in Ohio with her husband and adorable Shih Tzu, Millie.
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