Craig A. Smith's first novel, "The Mile", is a wonderful romp down Edinburgh's Royal Mile, taking in a number of the pubs en route. The action all takes place on one evening in September 2014, a week before Scotland's independence referendum. Three old university friends, now heading for middle age, meet up for one of their increasingly rare get-togethers, and on this occasion the plan is to pub-crawl their way down one of the most famous streets in the world.
There is a sense in which the author clearly intends this to be a book of ideas, and it works very well at that level. Ian is intensely pro-independence, and is desperate to convince Euan to vote "Yes" in the forthcoming referendum. Euan takes what he views as a more prudent stance informed by a career as a banker, and feels independence would be bad for everyone. Stuart, always the ladies' favourite, has had to fight off the attentions of an admirer on his way up to Edinburgh by train from his home in France (his only option, as a travel writer who is afraid of flying), and really doesn't care which way the vote goes. Then, in the first pub, they encounter Jock, a 95 year old war hero, with his own decided views about Scotland's future, and his own.
The problem with thinking of "The Mile" as being about the independence debate is that this is likely to turn off as many possible readers as it attracts. It is therefore important to emphasise that while the discussion of the pros and cons of independence provides a context for the book, this is an excellent novel that has much more to offer besides. For us, the political debate slides nicely into the background as we engage with five fascinatingly drawn characters: the three lads; Jock; and Rosie, who works at Jock's care home and is searching Edinburgh for him.
As the adventure develops, you find out more about the characters, and they find out more about one another. And as the blood-alcohol levels build, events take on an ever more surreal edge, with Jock leaving a lasting impression on just about everyone he encounters. There are elements of this book that bring to mind Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", perhaps because of the very real sense of inebriation and chaos that builds as the night progresses. But at its heart, "The Mile" is a gentle book about nice people who you find yourself really caring about, and that makes it so very much more than a novel about whether Scotland should be an independent country or not.