Review: A Rattle Of Bones

Douglas Skelton – A Rattle Of Bones

Published by Polygon Books, paperback £8.99, also available in ebook. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes.

First, the official blurb: In 1752, Seamus a’Ghlynne – James of the Glen – was executed for the murder of government man Colin Campbell. He was almost certainly innocent. When banners are placed at his gravesite claiming that his namesake, James Stewart, is innocent of murder, reporter Rebecca Connolly smells a story. The young Stewart has been in prison for ten years for the brutal murder of his lover, lawyer and politician Murdo Maxwell, in his Appin home. Rebecca soon discovers that Maxwell believed he was being followed prior to his murder and his phones were tapped. Why is a Glasgow crime boss so interested in the case? As Rebecca keeps digging, she finds herself in the sights of Inverness crime matriarch Mo Burke, who wants payback for the damage caused to her family in a previous case.

Douglas Skelton is a writer of immense skill and I feel he doesn’t get the wide audience he should. Before this series he wrote four dark, brooding novels featuring Davie McCall, two gallus almost caper-style Dominic Queste titles, and New York-set, Mafia-tinged thriller The Janus Run. The fourth Rebecca Connolly comes out later this year, with more to come, and he has just signed a deal for a historical series. Not many writers have a back catalogue this varied – there’s bound to be something you enjoy among all these!

This series mixes the mythic/historic and the modern with great style. In A Rattle Of Bones, the ancient is in the shape of an 18th century murder case. The modern is a claimed miscarriage of justice in another murder case. The accused in both cases: a man named James Stewart – one executed, the other facing a life sentence. It’s a neat jumping-off point to explore justice ancient and modern, and what can go wrong as well as right.

There’s a chill in the prologue dealing with the fate of James of the Glen that has nothing to do with the weather (though Skelton describes perfectly the conditions of the Highlands, the same feeling for an outsider now as in 1753: a wish that one’s coat was twice as warm). 

In the here and now, Rebecca is dealing with the fallout of an incident featured in The Blood Is Still that now includes vague, but overt threats. She’s also dealing with a campaign proclaiming the innocence of James Stewart, with banners being erected at sites linked to the namesake killer of almost 300 years ago. And Rebecca’s nemesis, Mo Burke, has the reporter in her sights – though she won’t get her hands dirty directly.

The campaign is being orchestrated by Tom Muir, a contact of Rebecca’s, in the hopes of drumming up interest in the case and helping Stewart’s mother see her son freed after a decade in jail. Also interested in the case – and in the victim, lawyer and environmental activist Murdo Maxwell – are several other parties, not all of them based in Inverness and not all of them operating on the right side of the law. There are secrets within secrets, but they will out in the end.

A solicitor apparently has new information about the case. Rebecca is desperate to get her hands on it – as is Mo Burke, doing a favour for a shadowy Glasgow figure; as are the cops, with DCI Val Roach’s day off being interrupted by her boss to get on the case. There’s a confession – though that’s not the whole story either; things are always more complex than they first appear in Skelton’s novels.

Rebecca finally gets the whole story, but there’s a loose end from the start of the novel that comes back in a knot, with Skelton knowing exactly how to make his readers feel chills. Retribution is swift, perhaps a hint to the future. And there’s satisfaction for Rebecca which gives the reader a sense of closure too, plus a little hope for the future.

A Rattle Of Bones is a slow burn of a book, the tension quietly being ratcheted up. Have patience, there is action, but in the meantime enjoy the scenery – literally – and the character work, which is full of subtleties, quiet depths and hints of sorrow. But while there is a strong thread of melancholy in the novel, it’s not all gloom, misery and death; there are still flashes of humour. Sometimes it’s dark, the kind used by cops and journalists to get them through tough days; sometimes it’s the kind found when one bad guy gets exasperated with another bad guy, where we can laugh because we’re at a safe distance. And sometimes it’s genuinely light relief: Elspeth’s annoyance at unruly kids in the cafe; Rebecca punning gently with DCI Roach over a coffee. 

Intriguing history and satisfying plots are a hallmark of this series, but Skelton also knows what brings readers to return to a book, to press it into their friends’ hands, to bore their family to tears talking about it: characters. This book in particular is really about the characters and their relationships – none of the smaller characters are cardboard cutouts or caricatures, and the central cast are richly rounded, given depth and hinterland beyond their identity as reporter, friend, colleague. Skelton has relaxed into this series even as he pushes harder to do more and do it better. He’s absolutely hit the bullseye here with a character-driven gem I know I want to reread over and over. There are few series I will recommend to anyone and everyone, but this is one of them. It’s simply superb and you simply must read it.

Douglas Skelton was born in Glasgow and has been a bank clerk, tax officer, taxi driver (for two days), wine waiter (for two hours), journalist and investigator. He has written 11 true crime/criminal history books, but now concentrates on fiction. A Rattle Of Bones is his tenth novel and the third in the Rebecca Connolly series after Thunder Bay (longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize in 2019) and The Blood Is Still. When he’s not writing novels, he writes scripts for the Carry On Sleuthing comedy plays, and is one-quarter of the Four Blokes In Search Of A Plot who create a short story live from nothing but audience suggestions for a protagonist and a murder weapon.

You can follow him on Twitter here: @DouglasSkelton1
Find his website at: www.douglasskelton.com

I’ve written about the first two Rebecca Connolly novels, Thunder Bay and The Blood Is Still, elsewhere on the blog, and Douglas was one of my earliest Five By Five Interviews last year.

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