"The Likeness" by Bill Kirton is an engaging story set in and beyond Aberdeen in 1841. John Grant is a woodcarver whose business produces wooden figureheads and decorative elements for Aberdeen's thriving shipbuilding industry. The arrival in the city of a touring theatre group brings about an unusual commission for him, to create a stage figurehead in the likeness of one of the actresses. John also had other things on his mind. The mysterious death of a young woman in a secluded spot beside the harbour brings back memories of personal tragedy that John would prefer to keep locked away. Yet the incompetence of what passes for official criminal investigation in the city at the time leaves him with little option but to bring his own talents as a detective to bear in an effort to uncover who the young woman is, who killed her, and why.
Also on John's mind is his unlikely, yet blossoming, relationship with Helen Anderson, the daughter of one of the city's ship owners. Helen is very much her own woman, and this extends both to her desire to make a worthwhile contribution to her father's business and to her unconventional views about marriage. Helen succeeds in convincing her father that she should join his business, and then manages to convince him to allow her to make a short voyage on one of his ships. This allows the setting to broaden out beyond the city of Aberdeen to take in the far north of Scotland, and the account of Helen's short voyage is a fascinating insight into the unpleasant realities faced by the very many emigrants from Scotland to North America who embarked on similar, but much longer, voyages. Helen's journey to Aberdeen from Thurso brings home the realities of overland travel in the age before the railways arrived in much of Scotland and is a nice reminder of just how much they transformed the country over the following decades.
Helen's return brings to the fore tensions between her and John as each tries to work out what it is that they really want from life. Will they seize the opportunity of a more fulfilled life together, or will their differences of outlook prove insurmountable and prevent them seizing a chance of happiness that may not return? And can John get to the bottom of the death of the young woman and bring her some justice? Bill Kirton's characters and settings draw the reader in and you end up really caring about whether Helen and John are able to move forward together towards a better future.