Review: Thunder Bay

Douglas Skelton – Thunder Bay

Published by Polygon Books, paperback £8.99. I received a proof copy from the publisher (of the first paperback edition) for review purposes.

Thunder Bay is Douglas Skelton’s eight novel, and a fresh departure from a writer whose back catalogue suggests a restless soul – four dark, hard-edged David McCall novels; a pair of Dominic Queste tales that showcase a gallus, gallows humour, and last year’s The Janus Run, a New York-set, Mafia-tinged thriller, all of them slices of solid noir with flawed characters who are all the more real for being less than perfect.

For his latest, planned as the first in a series, Skelton creates the fictional Scottish island of Stoirm, a place of wild weather and dark secrets, and in another departure focusses the novel on young journalist Rebecca Connolly after giving us a string of male protagonists. So has Skelton bitten off more than he can chew? Far from it – the changes may have taken him out of his comfort zone, but they have also drawn from him a powerful and compelling novel. Ian Rankin recently described it as “a beautiful piece of prose” and I can’t disagree.

Rebecca, a weekly paper reporter, has a talent for getting people to talk, but could never prise out of her late policeman father why he left Stoirm at 18 and never went back. So when she gets a tip-off about the return to the island of Roddie Drummond – last seen there 15 years ago when his girlfriend, Mhairi Sinclair, was killed and he was acquitted of her murder on a not proven verdict – Rebecca is desperate to make the crossing to bring back his story and unearth her father’s secret. She ignores her boss’s refusal to OK the trip, and sets off for Stoirm with the weather threatening to turn against her too.

Once she arrives, for every person who welcomes her there are half a dozen who are hostile. And then there’s Thunder Bay itself, an island’s worth of wildness crammed into its currents and caves which repels even as it fascinates. Many secrets are hinted at, as well as the central story of Mhairi’s death, which is revealed in a series of powerful flashbacks and underscored by scenes from the childhood of a group of friends: Mhairi and her brother, Ray; Henry, now the lord of the manor; Roddie, and Donnie Kerr.

Rebecca’s early investigations take place in a period of preternatural calm for the island, but the story builds inexorably like the pressure headache hitting Donnie that he knows heralds a turn in the weather. The day of Roddie’s mother’s funeral – his reason for returning – dawns dark and brooding, and Stoirm’s namesake weather arrives with a vengeance. The Biblical rain that lashes the mourners also heralds an Old Testament-style act from one character, and as the storm continues, so does the horror, including one moment that left me with a lump in my throat. Meanwhile, Rebecca finally finds out why her father left Stoirm, sparking a revulsion in her that echoes her father’s actions all those years ago.

Vile deed is heaped on vile deed as the truth about Mhairi’s death is revealed, and though I feel Skelton slightly pulls his punches in the unmasking of the killer, a rough kind of justice is served that satisfies. Skelton’s love of classic noir movies is felt in the filmic quality of many scenes in Thunder Bay, including the final showdown on the wave-lashed beach, which also highlights how the island and its weather are characters as vital to the story as any person.

The risks Skelton took in creating Thunder Bay have paid off in spades. As well as a protagonist we are rooting for from the first pages, he has laid bare an emotional heart and tied it to a lyrical style that I believe places him among Scotland’s top cadre of crime writers.

This review was first published in The Scotsman on 9 March, 2019. This is copyright of The Scotsman Publications and is being used in this instance with their kind permission.

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