There’s a telling scene early in Craig Robertson’s latest mystery where the main character, John Callum, is attacked by two birds while hill walking. Once a teacher, he’s arrived on the Faroe Islands from a rougher part of Glasgow and is clearly escaping from something. But the feathered fiends swoop down to claw at him just like his terrible past. They’re birds of prey native to the archipelago, and clearly they don’t want him in their territory. If there’s a poetic meaning behind the attack, Callum fails to heed it, and before long all the inhabitants of Faroes are eying him with suspicion.
Just what Callum is running from he won’t share, as he narrates a taut tale that’s dripping with psychological angst… and blood. You’ll soon feel that he’s not the most reliable of narrators.
One of his first ports of call is a Torshaven drinking hole where he takes a liking to the local beers. He befriends the barman who makes a call or two on his behalf, and soon he’s working on a salmon farm. The work is hard, the money’s bad, and fish guts are smelly, but the manager of the farm takes a liking to him and offers him a room in the family home.
It could be the ideal set-up – a place to sleep, steady work, and a lift in the morning – but soon after entering Martin Hojgaard’s house, Callum has a nightmare. In his dreams a teenager called Kieran Dornan is killed over and over again, in all sorts of surreal and horrific ways. Callum’s screams, swearing and cries of ‘murder’ terrify the Hojgaard family and they ask him to leave. After all, the Faroese are a peaceful people and haven’t had a killing in 25 years. However, feeling guilty they decide to offer him a hillside hut that, though dark and damp, is serviceable accommodation.
Things are on the up again when Callum strikes up an affair with Karis Lisburg – extrover, artist and daughter of Esmundur, a leading minister in the Faroese church. He also makes friends with a French photographer called Serge Gotteri who’s shooting the Faroes for National Geographic. Serge drives him around and they observe a grind – a traditional slaughter of pilot whales – in one of the harbours. But these relationships bring trouble. Karis has an extremely possessive ex-boyfriend called Aron Dam. Huge and full of threats, he has a similarly proportioned brother. Meanwhile, Gotteri is not quite what he appears to be. Why is he hot and cold with Callum, and what is his connection with the Dams? Did they put a dead raven in Callum’s shack? Did they sever his water supply pipe?
But a dead bird is nothing compared to waking up by the harbour one morning with a brutal hangover and a bloodied whaler’s knife in his pocket. Callum can’t remember anything about the fateful night, and what he’s done is serious enough for two detectives to arrive from Denmark, along with a forensics specialist, to investigate. Karis will have nothing to do with him, Gotteri continues to deceive, and Martin Hojgaard is frankly disgusted. Callum’s only friend seems to be a shifty Faroese cop called Broddi who doesn’t like being stepped over by the Danes.
The Last Refuge is an intricate psychological mystery, full of minute and telling character detail. It’s so well done, it’ll remind you of Karin Fossum or Roger Smith at their best. Callum has plenty of flaws – he drinks to excess, fails to contain his vengeful nature, and is unwilling to face his past. He can be kind and honest, but callous and calculating too, and Robertson has him play with your trust throughout. Hero, anti-hero, or villain? You’ll never be sure until the rain- and tear-soaked conclusion.
The geography of the islands, the climate, the people and their customs all bear down on Callum, and cleverly force him to look upon himself and account for his actions. The author’s background, mixed with the unique, largely Nordic backdrop, mean that The Last Refuge offers the best of both the Scottish and the Scandinavian crime writing traditions. A wonderful piece of crime fiction with a brilliant and original setting.
Click here to read five reasons why you should never set your book in the Faroes, by Craig Robertson. The Last Refuge is released 22 May.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 5 Stars