Crucible of Secrets by Shona MacLean is, above all else, an exceptionally well crafted crime novel and a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable read: the sort of book you'd recommend without hesitation to a friend or family member. A word of warning, though. If you do, don't expect them to be paying much attention to you for a while: this is a book that draws the reader in and keeps them turning the page to the very end.
The book begins with a murder, and it is up to the victim's colleague and friend, Alexander Seaton, to try to find a motive and identify the killer, as the authorities appear to be making little progress in doing so. This could be a synopsis of the start of many crime novels. What really makes "Crucible of Secrets" stand out is its setting. The year is 1631 and Robert Sim, the murder victim, is the librarian of Marischal College in Aberdeen. Alexander Seaton is an academic at the college and a man whose past experiences outside academia (this is the third book by Shona MacLean that charts his adventures) lead the college principal to ask him to investigate the murder.
It seems clear from the outset that Robert Sim was killed because he had found out something that someone wanted kept secret. On the day of his murder he had been cataloguing a bequest of books left to the college by a past graduate who had gone on to carve out a successful academic career in the Low Countries. Did something Sim read in one of the newly arrived books lead to his death? But as Seaton digs deeper he begins to wonder whether Sim was murdered because of something to do with his private life, as hints of dark secrets, both personal and academic, begin to emerge. And then there is a second murder...
Crucible of Secrets succeeds in being both a very good crime novel and an excellent piece of historical fiction. It is no surprise to find that the author has a Ph.D. in history from Aberdeen University, and that she specialised in 16th and 17th century Scottish history. As a result the background against which the drama is played out is thoroughly convincing, as is the cast of characters.