About the Book
Publisher: Counterpoint (December 28, 2007)
Aboard a British convict ship bound for the new world,
exiled clan chief Duncan McCallum witnesses a bizarre
series of murders and suicides among his fellow
Highland scot prisoners. Compelled by the masters of
his prison company to resolve the crimes while
remaining a prisoner, Duncan soon makes a fearful
During the late 1750's a peculiar complaint began arising from officers in the British forts north of Albany in the New York colony. They questioned the practice of allowing Iroquois allies to bivouac near their combat garrisons due to the unruly behavior that resulted when the Indians mingled with the Highland Scot troops-who seemed, by army standards, little more than heathens themselves. The bonds between Scot and Iroquois that anchor the plot of this novel are indeed not a novelist's fancy but rooted in historic fact: for a few years in the mid-18th century these two extraordinary cultures briefly and sporadically overlapped. In retrospect the connection should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the two peoples. The Highlanders and Iroquois were both steeped in warrior traditions, shared a rich heritage of storytelling, chafed against authority, and were each in their own way deeply spiritual. A particular headache for British officers-and a particular delight for those of us with Scottish blood gazing back -- was the tendency of certain Highlanders and Iroquois to perform wardances together before engagements.
Where such bonds formed between Scot and Iroquois, they may well have been nurtured by a mutual recognition that both their cultures were under siege by the same forces. They were living in turbulent times, years of unprecedented change that were altering their ways of life, and those of many others, forever. The period in which this book is set marked in a very real sense the beginning of the modern era. Science and literature were blossoming. The proliferation of printing presses had begun to connect and empower people, politically and culturally, in ways never before known. The common man had begun to discover his own identity, with profound implications for society. The first conflict that can truly be called a world war had begun, ignited in the forests of Pennsylvania by a young officer who was later to play the leading role in the American Revolution. These years became the pintel upon which many events of the following centuries swung.
Yet the history of this period, like too many others, has been taught to us in flat, sterile terms. We learn it through maps, charts, and trendlines, almost never through the eyes of actual human participants, and as a result most of us have lost our connection with the remarkable people of this remarkable time. It is largely a forgotten period, eclipsed by the more dramatic upheaval that began in 1775, but for me it has always held great fascination. Pick up a text and you might read of the dilution of monarchy and religion that occurred during these years, but those were only the symptoms of much more important transformations underway in the hearts and minds of the immigrants-mostly Scot, German, Irish and English-who set out across the Atlantic and entered the endless forest. Traveling to the American wilderness was like traveling to another planet. Nothing in their experience could prepare those immigrants for what they encountered, just as nothing could prepare the natives of the woodlands for the Europeans who began appearing on their trails.
The mysteries on these pages are not far removed from the broader mysteries that transformed these people. How did the Highland soldier feel when he charged into battle for the very king that had destroyed his way of life? What words hung in the air at deep forest campfires when Scot and Iroquois spoke in the night? What was at work in the heart of the Indian who stood at the edge of the forest and watched the plows that were burying his traditions? It wasn't just the bloodthirsty fury reflected in Hollywood images of such natives, for these were intelligent, curious and spiritual people. The woodland tribes had a rich, vital culture with much to teach us – most of us are oblivious to the reasons our Founding Fathers incorporated aspects of the Iroquois confederation into our government. How is it that in these violent times the Moravians-well-educated Germans with a zeal for God and exploration-went among the tribes even in the midst of war yet not one was ever killed? What irresistible force drove those families who, with full knowledge of the dangers, packed up their belongings and headed into the wilderness? What was the explanation given by the many European settlers captured by the woodland Indians who, when later given their freedom, chose to stay with the tribes?
These are the riddles that keep this period alive for me, and given the scarcity of direct answers in our chronicles, this may be a case where fiction can strike closer to the truth than history texts. Historians, after all, are handicapped by the fact that they can only celebrate the explorers who went into the wilderness and came back to speak of it. I, for one, have always been more interested in those explorers who went into the wilderness and decided not to return.
Having already won an Edgar for his Inspector Shan series (The Skull Mantra, etc.), Pattison makes a strong bid for another with this outstanding mystery set in colonial America. Scottish prisoner Duncan McCallum, indentured to the Ramsey Company, is troubled by a series of mysterious deaths on the ship carrying him to the New World. When McCallum's close friend Adam Munroe and a professor who was to work as a tutor are added to the list of the dead, McCallum, who has extensive medical training, is enlisted by the captain to investigate. The shipboard mysteries remain unresolved when they arrive in New York, and McCallum's quest for the truth leads him to perilous encounters on both sides of the French and Indian War. Pattison's moving characters, intricate plot and masterful evocation of the time, including sensitive depictions of the effects of the European war on Native Americans, set this leagues beyond most historicals and augur well for future entries in this series.
Once indentured to empire builder Lord Ramsey as a tutor to his children and connected to his utopian community in the Hudson Valley, Duncan scrambles to understand both his new setting and the continuing series of murders that follow in his wake. The conflicts among armies both private and government-backed, allies and enemies among the Huron, the French and members of the Iroquois Confederacy, and the knowledge that his soldier brother has become a renegade, make a mix to try his soul.
A string of dead people haunts the story, at times seeming more alive than the survivors. Also hauntingly beautiful are the bonds between the cultures of the Scots Highlanders and the Indians, both "true skin" peoples. Dark, complex and compelling in mystery, historical, and spiritual considerations, the reader wonders along with Duncan whether the New World will see oppression extended or explode in a new burst of freedom.
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