NTN: In the Shadow of the Hill by Helen Forbes

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In The Shadow of the hill

The ancient city of Inverness is the latest Scottish crime location to be ticked off in the Tartan Noir guide for tourists. In this inventive thriller published by our New Talent November sponsor ThunderPoint Publishing, DS Joe Galbraith is called in to investigate the murder of an elderly woman, found battered to death on the stairs of a block of dingy flats. Moira Jacobs lived alone and had no friends, but more importantly, she had no apparent enemies.

Further enquiries uncover something of the dead woman’s history. In her younger days, she was a social worker on the Hebridean island of Harris – the place where Galbraith spent his childhood. Galbraith’s father Raymond was a respected teacher on the island, but now he and wife Fiona have retired to the outskirts of Inverness. Joe Galbraith’s younger sister Lucy is studying law at university, and is recovering from the trauma of a shattered love affair.

In addition to police attempts to find the killer of Moira Jacobs, there are two parallel narratives, one evidently historical, and a second more contemporary. The latter involves a young man called Stephen. His mother, Betty, is in a nursing home, and is suffering from dementia. She alternates, almost daily, between lucidity and madness.

Galbraith’s boss, DI Black, has a prime suspect for Moira Jacobs’ murder. When the evidence goes pear-shaped Black is sent back to square one. Then, he discovers that the only person who may be able to shed light on Moira Jacobs’ past is a former colleague of hers. Morag MacDonald now lives in a care home on Harris. Much against his wishes, Galbraith is sent to the island to interview Morag in the hope that some distant memory can shed light on the mystery killer of a mystery woman.

Galbraith sets foot on Harris for the first time since he was a boy. His parents have persuaded him to take sister Lucy on the trip hoping the Hebridean air will blow away her clouds of love-induced depression. On the ferry trip over, Lucy meets a handsome and intelligent man, John MacKay, who is a professional naturalist and writer on ecological matters. He offers to show Lucy around the island while her brother is busy, and she accepts, much against her better judgement, as a new romance is the last thing on her mind.

At this point, I must offer a few words of caution. You may think you know what is going on in the story, but trust me – you don’t. Unless that is, you have a mind of the most perverse sort… in the nicest possible way, naturally. What follows involves the unraveling of several lives, and dark deeds of the past being revealed and judged in the present.

I liked the way that Helen Forbes uses the metaphor of the hill. Ceapabhal is its name in Gaelic and it broods over the action both past and present. At one point we are told, “Joe had lived in the shadow of that hill, and he had hoped never to see it again.” Be prepared for several dramatic reversals of everything you thought you knew about Joe Galbraith and his family. A musical term best describes the author’s performance at this point – bravura. The last 50 pages or so had me utterly gripped in a mixture of bewilderment and admiration, but my credulity was stretched just a little too far. To return to musical analogies, Helen Forbes certainly goes for that climactic top C. If she doesn’t quite hit it, then it is not through want of trying.

ThunderPoint Publishing

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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