Detective Inspector Neil Strachan is a man with a life and a career that many would envy. He's in his early thirties, yet at the beginning of the book is asked to step up to become acting Detective Chief Inspector after his boss suffers a heart attack. He has a beautiful partner who his family thinks he should marry. And he lives and works in Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands. What's not to like?
DCI Strachan has very little time to get established behind his new desk before murder comes knocking at his door. The wife of the owner of a local distillery is found brutally killed at the home the family have occupied for centuries, Cuillard Castle in Strathnairn, south of Inverness. The circumstances of the death are bizarre, almost ritualistic. And then a second body is discovered, of the husband of the first victim. He has been left in similar bizarre circumstances at The Well of the Dead, a significant location within the area of Culloden battlefield: and on the anniversary of the battle.
The reader follows the efforts of DCI Strachan and Detective Sergeant Holly Anderson as they try to catch the killer or killers, and find out why they were so obviously keen to search the castle. We also see events from the perspective of the mysterious gang who are intent on uncovering the long-concealed and highly valuable secret of Cuillard Castle. They recruit to their cause a local man, virtually a hermit, who has adopted the trappings of a highlander of the 1700s. He carries a deep hatred for the residents of Cuillard Castle for obscure reasons arising from perceived betrayal at the Battle of Culloden and this, and the couple's unexpected early return from a foreign holiday, seems to have led to their deaths. The reader is also taken back at intervals to observe the Jacobite's shambolic preparations for the Battle of Culloden, a savage and hugely decisive event that marked the end of the Jacobite dream in Scotland and the UK more widely.
The two detectives make steady progress trying to identify and find their murderer or murderers, despite Neil being distracted by his partner's increasingly odd behaviour. This develops into a sub-plot that nicely balances the central story; and gives a third strand to the narrative, alongside the modern murder hunt and the events of April 1746.
"The Well of the Dead" by Clive Allan is a thoroughly enjoyable read is easy to recommend. The internal workings of the police feel absolutely right, which is no surprise given the author was a serving policeman for 30 years. The plot and sub-plot fit together nicely and the historical interludes are woven in very effectively. The central characters are well-drawn and easy to get along with, and the geography of the area around Inverness fits together with the plot very well indeed. We particularly liked the author's use of real settings for hte story (up to a point: while Cuillard Castle occupies a real location, it is itself fictional for understandable reasons). The book is, at over 600 pages, something of a doorstopper, but it draws you in and keeps you reading. The author has a fondness for exclamation marks that is so pronounced we initially though it was going to get in the way of our enjoyment of the book, but it's possible to set this aside and get on with what is, in every other respect, an excellent detective novel.