The Dark Isle

Written by Clare Carson –– In the concluding part of the Sam Coyle trilogy, the daughter of an undercover agent travels to Orkney, where she spent childhood holidays. Sam wants to find out the truth about the death of her father who was killed in action. She believes the key lies on the island of Hoy where the person with the answers is hiding.

Back in the hot summer of 1976 when Sam was ten. She was in Orkney with her parents, Jim and Liz, and her two sisters, Helen and Jess. In the opening incident Sam goes for a swim and is out of her depth in the sea. Jim reacts with anger and calls her stupid and this sets the tone for their relationship, which is never tender.

Fast forward to 1989 and Sam is back in Mainland Orkney working on an archaeological dig of the Viking drinking hall at the Earl’s Bu. She realises she is being observed and follows the watcher to the pier for the isle of Hoy boat. She’s pretty sure he is Pierce, a former spook colleague of Jim’s and the father of her childhood friend Anna. She hasn’t seen Pierce since 1976 when he dropped Anna and her mother off at Sam’s house in London before he went on the run.

Sam and Anna grow as close as only the daughters of spooks can get, become blood sisters and engage in their own spying on the grown-ups. They are playing a dangerous game, as West German terrorists, the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhof and a ruthless Czech arms dealer are all on the spooks’ radar.

All this has repercussions later and the narrative switches between the terrorist-fuelled 70s and the end of the Cold War in 1989. Sam puts herself in harm’s way to get to the truth and her life is at risk several times. You can see how complex it all becomes, what’s less certain is how much you’ll care. Sam, her family, the spooks she encounters, her three main friends are self-serving characters with few redeeming qualities who come across as one-dimensional. And so does Orkney itself.

The Londoners belt up to Orkney for a quick chase across a desolate moor under dramatic skies and apart from a brief history lesson about the Vikings and the sorry tale of Betty Corirgall, who was buried on the moor in the 1700s, you could be anywhere. There’s not much sense of place, identity or insight into the way of life in the Northern Isles, no engagement with the inhabitants, even in a small community like Rackwick Bay on Hoy. There’s just a two-minute chat with the man, who may be Orcadian, operating the Hoy boat. I have lived in Orkney and was disappointed more was not made in this book of the distinctive cultural riches it offers. Carson has missed a trick here.

I haven’t read the first two books in the trilogy, but the blurb and reviews tell me that they also follow Sam’s quest. Perhaps that is why there is so much backstory in novel number three.

There are dense paragraphs, up to a page and a half long, which diminish any page-turning momentum and the same questions are repeated many times. Although there is a literal cliffhanger at the end, it doesn’t reveal much we didn’t already know or suspect. With no major twists, there is more of an acceptance and understanding of what went on 13 years earlier in the world of the spooks.

For more thrillers set on Scottish islands try Peter May’s Lewis trilogy, which includes The Chessmen, which successfully summons an all-consuming sense of place, SK Tremayne’s The Ice Twins and Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series.

Head of Zeus
Print/Kindle/iBook
£20

CFL Rating: 2 Stars

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