"The Body in the Bracken" by Marsali Taylor is the fourth in the author's series of "Shetland Sailing Mysteries", though the first of them that we have read. What we found was a book that beautifully evokes the character and spirit of Shetland, a place that is far more distinct from the rest of Scotland than anyone who has not been there, or who has not read one of Marsali Taylor's books, could possibly imagine. We also found ourselves transported into another world that we've glimpsed ourselves, but never understood: that of the many people who sail yachts around the difficult and sometimes treacherous coasts of Scotland and her islands for the sheer pleasure of doing so. And last but not least we found in "The Body in the Bracken" an intriguing mystery: a whodunit (which is also a "howdunit") that kept us engaged throughout and which gives the book a drive and a sometimes tense energy that keeps the reader turning the page from beginning to end.
We join Cass Lynch as she sails from Shetland to a loch on the mainland opposite the Isle of Skye, which we take to be Loch Hourn. She knows it as "Gavin's Loch" because it's the location of the family home of Detective Inspector Gavin Macrae, a man she may be on the verge of starting a relationship with. She is going there to spend Christmas with Gavin and his family. While there, she and Gavin stumble over a decaying body in the bracken on a remote hillside. Once back in Shetland she finds that her role in the unpleasant discovery becomes widely known, and an attempt on her life leads her to believe there may be a link between the body and the questions she has been asking about the apparently unrelated disappearance of a local businessman.
The interplay between the three central themes of the book works very well indeed. The mystery at the core of the story is constructed sufficiently well to keep the reader entertained, even without the overlays of the character of Shetland itself and the world of yachting. But with those elements added into the mix it becomes a truly enjoyable and memorable experience. Shetland has its own distinct language, a mixture of Old Norse and Old Scots known as "Shetlan" or "Shetlandic". The author introduces just enough of it into the dialogue to remind you at every turn that you are somewhere that, but for an odd twist of history, could still be part of a foreign country: though while always ensuring the book is easily comprehensible for anglophone readers. The result is a book with a sense of beautifully-observed detail and depth, and a book that seems to have captured the true feel of its setting. Likewise the sailing: there's enough detail here to entertain and convince, though never enough to overload the land-based reader. We spent the first few chapters wondering whether the book could be described as "Swallows and Amazons for grown-ups". This feeling diminished once Cass was back in Shetland, but it's a description that still conveys the lovely feel of the sailing sections of the book.