The Rough Collier is a mystery featuring Archbishop's Quaestor (Constable) Gil Cunningham and set in Medieval Lanarksire in Scotland. Gil is joined by new wife, Alys, and faithful dog Socrates in this, the fifth installment of the series.
A body is found in a peat bog, and Gil is called in to quell the ensuing panic. The body is well preserved, and it is obvious to the reader that the body as been there for some time; it is questionable whether a crime has been committed at all. But for the people who discovered the body, the belief that a crime as been committed is very real. By the time Gil arrives local healer Beattie Lithgo has already been arrested, accused of witchcraft by the Parish Chaplin, who also believes he knows the identity of the body in the peat.
Investigations show that the unfortunate deceased has had his throat slit accompanied with severe head trauma. It also seems obvious that the body is not that of Thomas Murray, overseer of the mine, as the Chaplin has surmised. But where is Murray, and why has he been missing for five weeks?
Alys and Gil try to clear Beattie's name by trying to ascertain the whereabouts of Murray. They travel from coal mines to towns where Murray should have visited to collect fees for the mines, interviewing people and trying to put the pieces together of when Murray was last seen or what his fate might be.
The mine belongs to the hard-nosed Arbella, who presides over the houseful of women including Beattie’s as well as Murray’s wife, who happens to have been married to Beattie’s brother. The familial relationships within the mine owner’s clan are complex and obviously have some bearing on the situation. More cadavers are found, sparking a great controversy. A confession and shocking details are revealed about Murray and the women who surround him.
The details of the period and characters in this novel are excellent, with detailed and fascinating explanations of the peat-cutting and salt-panning industry, as well as representations of the genuine fear of witchcraft and strong religious beliefs which prevailed at the time. McIntosh details a typical medieval society and manages to escape the downfall of making the characters modern people with modern ideas placed into the medieval world. Yet, though the characters are firmly in place in medieval Scotland, they are indeed individuals, not so backward in their thinking that it is beyond the understanding of the reader.
Gil is upstanding and clearly in love with Alys, who makes a pretty good sleuth herself. He especially is all a good medieval Christian could be, asserting that all sinners have a right to repent no matter what their crime, a belief that escapes many Christians today. Yet I do find him a little dull and much prefer Alys, a woman in a man’s world who so wants to do well and help the best she can that she scarcely realizes her own intelligence and gentle manner elicit more information from people than the straight-talking men.
Be prepared for the Scottish brogue. It does not help that many characters speak the same, thus their voices seem to blend into one another. There are many characters to keep track of, which can put the reader at a disadvantage. I enjoy the Scots speaking like Scots, and after a while I did not even notice, but people who find it annoying when authors use such devices of language may find this to be a frustrating read.
The Rough Collier is authentic and suspenseful, rare in its ability to appeal to mystery enthusiasts as well as lovers of the period. It would certainly be worth trying the other stories in the series and following the adventures of Gil, though I find Alys much more interesting than Gil - I wonder what the stories would have been like before the marriage of these two.
Comparisons with Ellis Peters are being made, and though the characters and stories are quite different, the ability to set the scene can certainly be compared favorably. This series is very popular, and well it should be - this latest installment is a very good read.
Pat McIntosh is a graduate of Glasgow University. She was born in Lanarkshire and for many years lived and worked in Glasgow.