Sharyn McCrumb, Highland Laddie Gone
(Severn House, 1986; Random House, 2001)
Have you ever been to a bonnie Highland Games in the States? One of me bands, Dead Heroes of Culloden, played a few well-payin' gigs at some a ways back. Several of our lads being of Scottish heritage were both amused and disgusted by what they saw. Haggis on a stick? Bullocks! In this novel, I think that Sharyn McCrumb has captured the absurd theatrical feel of the Scottish Revivalists and their insular culture rather well! The other lads in the band who have read this novel thought it was a silly and fun read. I shan't disagree! (They truly believe in the heroes of the bloody battle of Culloden, which is why they didn't get the joke about our band's name -- there are no dead heroes, only ones that live to fight yet again.)
In her third outing as amateur sleuth, with Sick of Shadows and Lovely in Her Bones coming before this novel, forensic anthropologist Elizabeth MacPherson has the chance to revel in a version of Scotland that never was, a Scotland as unreal as Brigadoon itself, when she attends the annual Glencoe Mountain Games as Maid of The Cat (don't ask -- just don't ask. I'm not sure you would believe it. I didn't). But the Games are cursed when the loathed Colin Campbell, scion of those Campbells, is found murdered with a skian dubh sticking out of his chest. (A skian dubh is the knife worn by every male who wears a full kit. So anyone could have killed the old bastard.) When a second member of this weird community is soon found dead, Elizabeth attempts to untangle the affair as quickly as possible. Now, Elizabeth often comes off as far dumber than need be in her understanding of current-day Scottish culture, but she means well. Well, mostly.
Elizabeth is attending the Highland Games with her cousin Geoffrey because she happens to be the Maid of the Cat for Clan Chattan. I did beg you not to ask, but I'll tell you anyways, as it's very silly. The cat is a declawed bobcat. There's a funny moment when Geoffrey, the cousin, hides the bobcat in a crate of ducks, not knowing the ducks are there. ('What the frell are ducks doing at a Highland Games?' you ask. Good question! Apparently, these oddkins think that it's fun for ducks to be chased around a pen by herding dogs. I say it's kinder to break their wee necks than keep scaring them to death. Did I mention that I think Americans are frelling strange?)
At the games, she meets a genuine Scot -- who has a rather jaundiced view of Americans, but who also has an accent that Elizabeth compares to 'pancake syrup' which means she's ready to jump his bones, and does very shortly. She falls in lust, err, love with it (no, not his skian dubh, his accent. Get your mind out of the gutter!) almost immediately, and then with the rest of this Scotsman.
We've also got a huckster from Scotland who sells cheap and not so cheap junk to the marks, errr, Game-goers, as he has convinced some of the truly gullible ones that he's collecting money for the Scottish Revolutionary Army (The only Scottish revolutionary army was the one that attempted to put that idiot "Bonnie Prince Charles" on the throne). All is illusion here 'til the death of Colin Campbell -- and even that is thought to be but a piece of theatre by many.
And watch for one of the only truly likable characters -- Alexander Lightfoot MacDonald, part Cherokee and part descendent of a Highland soldier who fought on the wrong side in that Revolutionary War. He's a Sheriff who just happens to be part of a Civil War reenactment group doing their own strange thing but a few miles from where the Games are being held. Elizabeth talks to him about the next group that's going to use the grounds after the Games are finished. It's the SCA, a group who are believers in Camelot and the like. 'Those people are weird,' says Clan Chattan Maid of the Cat to Confederal Colonel Lightfoot MacDonald! (Hell, they're all weird.)
Will Elizabeth find the killer? Of course! Will she and the boy be happy together? Most likely. Will you enjoy this novel? Sure. Just don't think too closely about how silly this whole idea is -- I can tell you that the reality is even worse. Did I mention hearing 'Scotland the Brave' played over and over again by less than skilled pipers? Or really tacky tartans? Need I say more? I think not.