At their best, historical murder mysteries allow the reader to escape the cares of their day-to-day lives in two quite distinct ways. Firstly the reader is, as with any whodunit, carried forward by the simple desire to find out what happened, why it happened, and who caused it to happen. A good historical murder mystery additionally draws the reader in by setting the action in a world very different from our own; by transporting the reader to a particular time and place that gives the plot additional depth and atmosphere. It follows that a good historical murder mystery needs to succeed in both senses. It needs to have a convincing and compelling plot, and it needs a setting that the reader is going to find believable.
We are pleased to be able to report that "Hue and Cry" by Shirley McKay works well in both departments. First published in 2009, this new edition gives readers the opportunity to enjoy the first of, to date, four mysteries featuring Hew Cullan as their central character. In this first book we join Hew as he arrives back in his home town of St Andrews after studying law in Paris. It is 1579 and the St Andrews of the day is a place that, though in many ways physically recognisable to modern readers, continues to suffer the religious tensions and undercurrents arising from the Reformation, nineteen years earlier. Meanwhile, the complex relationship between the university and the town, perhaps slightly less alien to modern eyes, adds a further dimension to the plot.
Though he is back in St Andrews, Hew is reluctant to travel the final few miles home because he knows that what he has to tell his father, that he no longer wishes to become a lawyer, will thwart the older man's lifetime ambition for his son. Instead Hew stays in St Andrews, only to find himself caught up in events as an old friend, university regent Nicholas Colp, is accused of the murder of a thirteen-year-old boy he had been tutoring for university admission. It is clear that Nicholas is not telling anyone, not even Hew, the whole truth. Then another murder is committed. Is it connected to the first? Events gather pace, passions run high and the truth becomes ever harder to uncover as the taints of corruption and witchcraft are added to the mix. And even when Hew thinks he has the story straight in his own head, he is faced by the impossibility of proving what he believes to be true and saving his friend from the hangman's noose.
As a whodunit, "Hue and Cry" is beautifully plotted and keeps the reader turning the page. Meanwhile, the St Andrews conjured up by Shirley McKay is entirely convincing, to the point where you think you can almost smell it. Add in engaging and believable characters and it is easy to see why this book marked the start of a successful series.