"Ghosts of the Vikings" by Marsali Taylor is the fifth in the author's series of "Shetland Sailing Mysteries" and the second of them that we have read. You sometimes read books that could be set anywhere, books in which the action and characters overpower the setting. With Marsali Taylor's books the setting is a central ingredient. And what a setting. When we reviewed her last book, "Body in the Bracken" we said: "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." This remains true in "Ghosts of the Vikings", though here the setting is remote even from mainland Shetland. The island of Unst is reached from the rest of Shetland by taking two ferries and crossing the intervening island of Yell. What you find if you make the journey is the most northerly inhabited island in Britain, and a great backdrop for a murder mystery.
Cass Lynch has been successful in gaining a position on a Norwegian sailing ship, and is planning to sail the yacht she lives on from Shetland to Norway. In the meantime, however, she has time to visit Unst to attend a performance by her French mother's touring opera company at Belmont House, a beautifully restored grand Georgian house at the south end of the island. And while there she helps local efforts to protect newly-discovered viking archeological sites from unscrupulous treasure hunters. What follows has many of the hallmarks of a classic country house mystery: a small circle of exotic suspects; a sense of enclosure and containment as the weather worsens and cuts off the island (and the power); and the ever-present questions of whodunit, and why they did it. Meanwhile, Cass's slowly developing relationship with Inverness-based Detective Inspector Gavin Macrae has a chance to blossom: or will events get in the way?
The central mystery could have been set in any country house anywhere, but by placing the story on Unst, Marsali Taylor succeeds in adding layers of interest and intrigue. Is what takes place in Belmont House connected with what is happening on the nearby archaeological sites? Are the ghosts of vikings really defending the places they once called home, and where they are buried? And can the weather really be that bad? (Yes it can: we've seen Unst in a storm, and it's a sight to behold.) The book's conclusion is nicely constructed, being both unpredictable and very subtly signposted, and you close the book with a sense of satisfaction. And with a sense of regret, because you know it's going to be a while before the author's next book can take you back into Cass Lynch's world.