"Whirligig" by Andrew James Greig is an outstanding murder mystery that draws you in and keeps you turning the pages all the way to its beautifully crafted and nicely veiled conclusion. The book is engagingly written and easy to read and the characters are clearly and convincingly drawn. What really sets it apart is the way the mystery surrounding a murder rapidly deepens as a second death follows the first while in the background the sense of impending danger becomes ever more pressing.
A gamekeeper on a Highland estate is found hanging lifeless from a tree, his crashed quad bike nearby. It doesn't take the police long to realise that this is murder. He's been snared in an elaborate and complex trap, just like the dead rabbit found hanging next to him. But he's not the first person to be found hanged in this tree: a female journalist died here over two decades earlier in what was determined at the time to be a suicide. The more we discover about the gamekeeper, the less we like him and the same is true of the victim of a second murder, whose death is very different but equally gruesome. Like the first, the second death is the result of a trap laid by someone with the skills needed to make intricate clockwork mechanisms carved from bone and wood. But what else links the two victims?
Enter Detective Constable Frankie McKenzie, Detective Inspector James Corstorphine and their handful of colleagues. They've never had to deal with something like this and it seems only a matter of time before the big guns from Inverness move in to take over the case. As Frankie and James dig deeper it becomes clear that the murders are connected to dark secrets that some within the town have held close for over twenty years and would very much like to keep hidden and buried.
The book is set in and around a Highland town whose identity and location are never revealed. It's always simply referred to as "the town". This gives the story a rather enclosed, slightly claustrophobic feeling that adds to the atmosphere. On the other hand this also disconnects it from its surroundings and can prove distracting if, like me, you like your Scottish novels to have a clearly defined Scottish setting. There are vague hints in relation to distances from Inverness and Glasgow and I found myself looking for clues to the location as much as for as for clues to the identity of the murderer. What's clear is that it's a town large enough to have a police station staffed by a small team headed by a Detective Inspector and to have a fairly wide range of other services.
The nature of the long-buried secrets that are gradually unearthed probably meant that setting the book in a specific real location wouldn't have worked: and the question of the identification of the location is probably a matter of personal preference anyway. As I say, the author's approach to the setting of the novel does certainly add to its intensity. I gather there's a follow-up book in preparation and very much look forward to reading it!