After a career in TV production Helen Bettinson recently ditched a long commute around the M25 in order to concentrate on reading, and perhaps even writing, crime fiction.
Admirers of Shona MacLean’s earlier novels will not be disappointed by the latest appearance of her Scottish sleuth, Alexander Seaton. Newcomers to the series be warned! You will find yourselves plunged into the claustrophobic society of 17th century Aberdeen, where fear stalks the corridors of academia and student battles besmirch the public beach.
When the bloody corpse of the university librarian is discovered lying in a courtyard, Seaton, his friend and colleague, is charged by the Principal to uncover the truth and save the college’s reputation. Seaton is convinced that the key to the mystery is contained in a shipment of recently-arrived books from the continent. It includes works on alchemy and hermetics, the pursuit of ancient knowledge, an area of study that threatens ridicule and persecution of its followers. But to Alexander’s dismay mounting evidence suggests that secret scholarship and forbidden practices are taking place behind the closed doors of the city he loves – perhaps even among men that he loves.
Woven through Seaton’s murder inquiry are threads of guilty love and sexual suspicion. He is shocked to discover that the apparently upstanding librarian had a secret lover whose identity, once revealed, sends shockwaves through the tight-knit community. Meanwhile doubts over his own marriage lead Alexander to twist himself into knots of jealousy and muddle-headedness.
Shona MacLean’s academic background – she has a doctorate in 17th century Scottish education – validates her reconstruction of university life, whilst her family inheritance – she is the niece of Alistair MacLean – means she knows how to keep readers turning the page. Crucible of Secrets has a satisfying plot, but more importantly it has satisfying characters and a setting that educates as well as entertains. Alexander Seaton is well served.