"A Sink of Atrocity" by Malcolm Archibald is about Dundee. Before the residents of Scotland's fourth city get too upset, it's worth making clear that this is not a book about modern Dundee. Rather, as the subtitle makes clear, this is an account of crime in 19th century Dundee. It is also worth making clear that the description is not Malcolm Archibald's. As the author says in his introduction, the phrase was first coined by Henry, Lord Cockburn. He was an eminent lawyer and judge, whose memoirs about his 17 years as a Circuit Judge were posthumously published in 1888 as "Circuit Journeys".
Lord Cockburn had a thing about Dundee. As well as coming up with the memorable phrase that forms the title of this book, he also described the city as "the palace of Scotch blackguardism" and "the most blackguard place in Scotland." In this well written and immensely readable book Malcolm Archibald starts by looking at the changes that swept through Dundee in the 1800s, changes that turned it from a small town to a major industrial city playing a world role in jute, linen, whaling and shipbuilding. His brief history of Dundee during the century is fascinating, and highlights the social and economic factors which led to the descriptions given it by Lord Cockburn. Though, as Malcolm Archibald says, "Given the hell's kitchen in which so many lived, it is more surprising that most people remained honest."
The main body of the book is divided into a series of chapters which look either at types of crime or at some of the key players in the story of crime in Dundee, whether it be the early police, or the thieves whose activities were so prominent in Dundee during what even by the standards of the century was a crime wave in the 1860s. A book of this sort succeeds or fails on the strength of the research that underlies it; the quality of the writing; and the author's ability to select incidents and stories that will appeal to his or her readers. On all three counts Malcolm Archibald has succeeded admirably. The result is a book which is genuinely fascinating, hugely informative, thoroughly entertaining (in spite, at times, of the subject matter), and in places very surprising: an early account is of the theft of a whale worth £600 (a lot of money in 1829) by the crew of one Dundee whaling ship from under the noses of another who had already harpooned it!