"None but the Dead" by Lin Anderson is the latest book in her series featuring forensic scientist Dr Rhona MacLeod. It is an outstandingly good read that brings together character, place and plot with consummate skill. This is the perfect book for any lover of Tartan Noir looking to immerse themselves in a story that carries the reader along via an entertaining series of twists and turns to a conclusion that is both satisfying and nicely veiled. For us, reading this book raised an important question. It's the eleventh novel in the series. How come we've only read one of the previous ten? No matter: it's a joy, however belatedly, to realise what we've been missing.
The island of Sanday is one of the most northerly of the Orkney Islands, the archipelago that lies beyond the north-eastern tip of mainland Scotland. Despite having a population of around 500 people, it is one of the more remote corners of the country, and is defined by weather that can often be extreme. We've always thought that in Scotland you know you are off the beaten track when you've set foot on an island than can only be reached from another island. Sanday is accessed by ferry or by air from Mainland Orkney, but only when the weather permits.
"None but the Dead" starts with the discovery of the remains of two people. One is the body of an elderly man, who is found dead in his flat in Glasgow, and all the indications are that there has been foul play. The second is a skeleton that is unearthed during the conversion of an old school on Sanday into a house for a newcomer to the island. Orkney is no stranger to skeletons. It's been said that if you scratch any part of it, it bleeds archeology. But this skeleton seems to date back to a period of the island's life, during World War Two, that is within the memory of some still living on Sanday. Can Dr Rhona MacLeod discover how the skeleton came to be buried beside the island school and whether there is a link with thirteen artificial flowers discovered in the old school attic, flowers that are believed by many to represent the souls of dead children? And then a storm moves in, the island is cut off from the outside world, and long held secrets from the past begin to collide with very modern secrets, with fatal consequences.
Lin Anderson can weave a remarkably compelling tale, and she does so here. Her characters are engaging and sufficiently complicated to remain a little unpredictable and keep the reader interested and intrigued. But if there is one thing that stands out as truly special about this book, it is the island of Sanday itself. We've sometimes read novels that raise the question of whether the author has ever actually been to the places described. Lin Anderson is at the other extreme of that spectrum. Her descriptions of Sanday ring absolutely true, and the island that emerges does so as a real place that you can reach through the page and touch: you can almost hear the wind that accompanies much of the story, and understand why some might think they are hearing the singing of long-lost children.