Stonemouth is a large fictional estuary town on the coast of Aberdeenshire, somewhere north of Aberdeen and south of Peterhead. It is Stewart Gilmour's home town, and he is back to attend the funeral of Joe Murston, the patriach of one of the two families of gangsters who run the town and who between them maintain the sort of law and order that might not seem out of place in a spaghetti western. Stewart has a history with the Murston clan. He came to know Joe through their shared love of hillwalking, and later found other reasons to become almost part of the family. Only everything went badly wrong one night five years previously, and Stewart had to leave town in a hurry by jumping a freight train and heading for a new life in London.
He has not been back since, and has good reason to be concerned that his return might not be well received by the Murstons and by others. Most of the action in "Stonemouth" takes place over the long weekend leading up to Joe Murston's funeral, as Stewart recounts the events of the present and weaves them into those of the past. As the day of the funeral approaches the tension steadily mounts, and the reader is left enjoying a very well crafted journey without ever quite knowing where it is leading. How much of the mess that Stewart made of his life five years ago is he going to be able to come to terms with? And will the Murstons really let him leave town with old stories unfinished and old scores left unsettled?
It is perhaps no surprise that author Iain Banks chose to invent a setting for this compelling and thoroughly entertaining novel. No Scottish town would have thanked him for being used as its setting. Yet, having invented a backdrop, he does a great job of giving it a sense of reality, and he then peoples it with a fascinating cast. Stewart himself is an engaging central character, and his old friends, flames and drinking companions are brought to life in a thoroughly convincing way. Meanwhile, the Murstons convey just the right sense of barely suppressed menace that seems ever present as Stewart tries to disentangle past events and relationships.