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The Reek of Red Herrings (Dandy Gilver) by Catriona McPherson
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781250090980
Date: 13 December 2016 List Price $26.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

A shipping company, Burchfield and Sons, has discovered parts of a dismembered, badly decomposed corpse inside one of its barrels intended for preserved herrings. The barrel has been traced to Gamrie, an isolated fishing village in Scotland. The company's owner, Mr. Burchfield, hires Dandy Gilver and her friend, Alec Osbourne, to discover the victim's identity and apprehend his/her murderer. During their investigation, Dandy and Alec learn that a sailor, John Gow, fell overboard while fishing, never to be seen again. His betrothed, Nancy Mason, also disappeared. Adding to the mystery is the succession of strangers, all men, who have arrived at Gamrie and vanished into thin air.

If you only have time to read one historical mystery this year, then choose Catriona McPherson's The Reek of Red Herrings. In one word, it is best described as macabre. I've always enjoyed reading the Dandy McGilver series because I found its plots were very intriguing. However, The Reek of Red Herrings is the most bizarre I've encountered. This one is my favorite for numerous reasons. The setting is a remote seaside fishing village in Scotland in the early 1930s; it consists of stone houses built upon the side of a steep cliff. The late December weather is atrociously cold and miserable; it is constantly raining, sleeting or snowing.

Also by Catriona McPherson:
Dandy Gilver Mysteries:
* Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains
* Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder
* Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses
* A Deadly Measure of Brimstone
* The Reek of Red Herrings

I love mysteries that have a Christmas setting. A majority of the plot occurs around Christmas; however, the villagers spend an incredible amount of time preparing for five weddings. The villagers themselves are a most peculiar, albeit friendly, lot. They are an inbred group that speaks their own language. Dandy and Alec pretend they are philologists (i.e., folklorists) who are studying the villager's queer customs. They are readily accepted; however, as time passes, tension builds as some villagers begin to suspect they may be spies working for their boss, Mr. Burchfield.

Furthermore, I love a high body count and The Reek of Red Herrings definitely has one. Not all of the deaths are evenly spaced throughout the novel. A vast majority occur (or are revealed) towards the novel's end. The ending is extremely gruesome and shocking. I would love to ask McPherson where she got her idea for that awesome grindhouse ending. I have my strong suspicions but won't list them here for fear of ruining the plot. Readers shouldn't be afraid that there is a lot of blood and gore in these pages. Most of the violence is implied. Readers will have to use their imaginations.

Readers will have to also exercise patience along with Dandy and Alec as they learn the meanings of new terms. For example, they discover that "handfasting" is used to describe the impregnation of a girl who is betrothed to a sailor. Marriages at Gamrie don't occur until the betrothed is pregnant in order to guarantee a family that will grow and contribute to a fishing village. There are innumerable other customs; most of them were created to ensure that bad luck does not befall the newlyweds. Dandy serves as "worst maid" for one of the brides and Alec serves as "worst man" for one of the grooms. While reading this novel, I couldn't help but contemplate the classic Shirley Jackson short story "The Lottery" and the groundbreaking horror film The Wicker Man (1973), starring Edward Woodard and Christopher Lee. Both works of fiction contain bizarre customs that lead to murder.

There are numerous other horror movies, both classic and modern, that I reminisced about while reading Catriona McPherson's The Reek of Red Herrings. Again, I can't reveal them for fear of ruining the storyline and the gruesome grindhouse ending that will haunt my dreams for a long time. Readers may find the dialect, the archaic terminology, and the usage of common names very annoying. However, they must remember these are the characteristics or side effects of an inbred community. Nevertheless, the treacherous weather, bizarre characters, unique setting, tragic deaths, and shocking ending will make this novel very much worth reading. I pray that McPherson's future mysteries continue to lean strongly towards the macabre.

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