Book Review: The Mash House, by Alan Gillespie
The idea that dark events can happen in beautiful places isn’t new, but Cullrothes, Alan Gillespie’s fictional village on the West Coast, seems like a perfect setting for a detective story. Small community, accessible only by ferry or a long road trip, it is far from the usual sources of law and order (the local cop visits once in a blue moon), and various locals escape a shady past.
However, despite the cover design, short chapters, and black tartan vibe, this debut novel does not follow the narrative conventions of a crime story. While there are two violent deaths in the first few pages and more corpses follow, we’re told exactly how they happen (not sparing the details) and why. Without the tension or allure of a thriller’s crossword, the book is driven by the question of who is finding out the truth; and if the culprits get away with it.
It’s not always enough to drive a book that settles into a fairly majestic rhythm. Gillespie introduces us to a set of characters that we follow through the better part of the year: Alice, the new schoolteacher, and her hapless partner Innes, fleeing her past; Jessie, a bright 16-year-old caring for a depressed parent; Donald, the tyrannical owner of the distillery who seems to run everything in the village, plus a large drug supply network. The beauty of the region is mentioned, but not fully developed.
Gillespie offers us a glimpse into the inner lives of his characters, but rarely anything deeper. Alice Green, the schoolteacher, is a wickedly convincing, manipulative, amoral character capable of cruelty both to her partner and to the children she teaches. Is she the victim of past trauma, delusional or just scheming? We never find out.
The relationship between Jessie and her dying grandfather is by far the warmest in the book, though her kindness and skill touches the saint. Some of the other characters are actually only sketches: the corrupt local journalist, the priest with a fondness for chocolate, the mysterious American who bears the unlikely alias of Johnny Coca-Cola and whose role in the story is never fully realized.
This is not the underside of rural Scotland vividly and brutally dissected by Alan Warner, nor an in-depth analysis of the undercurrents of village life, as Ronald Frame did in Time in Carnbeg. In his direct, subconscious style and zeal for action, he owes perhaps more to Iain Banks, although Gillespie is yet to show Banksian panache. At 400 pages, it would benefit from being more edited, especially in the dialogue, but it is also true that the pages turn very quickly.
Despite the title, very little time is spent in the distillery, but this book already attracts comparisons with whiskey (“black as peat”, etc.). It’s not single malt, but it’s an intriguing blend that you can happily spend a few dark evenings with.
The Mash House, by Alan Gillespie, Unbound, £ 9.99
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