"In a Veil of Mist" by Donald S Murray is a wonderfully evocative book, bringing back to life a world now long gone through a deeply human story that takes as its backdrop a deeply inhuman government experiment. In 1952 the waters off the east coast of the Isle of Lewis were chosen to be the location of trials that involved animals - monkeys and guinea pigs - being caged on board a pontoon and exposed to a series of biological agents including pneumonic and bubonic plague. The trials were carried out by government scientists working aboard a ship called the Ben Lomond that was anchored offshore near Tolsta, north of Stornoway.
Although the trials are the point of departure for this outstanding novel, they are not really its subject. Instead this is a book that tells the stories of three individuals, characters who are brought to the page by the author with consummate skill. The narrative moves around them as we follow their day-to-day lives and find out more about their memories, their hopes and their fears.
Jessie is a villager who believes her one chance of happiness in life evaporated thirty years earlier, when the man she'd promised herself to disappeared without trace immediately on disembarking from a ship in North America. She is worried about what seems to be happening off the coast and stumbles over grisly evidence on her local beach of what is going on. Her concerns cause her to distance herself still further from the community around her until, unexpectedly, she has cause to reassess her life and her aspirations.
Duncan is the local bus driver. He's only strayed from the island of his birth during his military service in World War Two, which was spent mainly in Gibraltar. His world and his hopes for the future are limited by unhappy childhood experiences and by his own crippling shyness. Jessie shows him what she's found on the beach at Tolsta and his world also changes as a result.
The third central character, John, is one of the scientists from Porton Down working aboard the Ben Lomond. Most of his time, even when he's meant to be conducting scientific research, is spent worrying about his fairly recent marriage to attractive and desirable Lillian, who he met when she was a barmaid in his local pub. John finds it impossible to trust Lillian and tortures himself with thoughts of her with other men. A more tangible threat to their marriage is her hatred of the sort of work he does, which he only told her about after they were married.
And then... reflecting an incident that actually happened, a Fleetwood-registered fishing boat sails through a cloud of plague bacteria drifting towards the animals on the pontoon. This begins to sound like the set up for a tense thriller; but it's not. The event and its resolution - of a sort - takes just a few pages and we learn the government has taken the decision to secretly monitor the fishing boat and its crew as they sail home and after they arrive. The real effect of the incident is to destabilise John even further. Lillian has gone home to be with her family in Fleetwood and he begins to imagine her and them being caught up in a lethal pandemic introduced by the fishing boat crew.
This neatly sets the scene for the book's conclusion, which sees each of the three central characters being forced to reassess their lives; and the very brief moment when all three meet. We'd strongly recommend "In a Veil of Mist" to anyone looking for really strong and memorable fiction about Scotland. The characters are beautifully drawn and the backdrop is fascinating.
While what lies between the covers of this book is outstanding, we are less convinced by the actual covers themselves. The blurb on the rear cover, which focuses on Operation Cauldron and the fishing boat incident, leads you to expect a thriller, which seems unhelpful to those who would love this book but perhaps don't like thrillers; or to those attracted to it as a thriller who find something really rather different within. And the cover itself seems rather low key and unlikely to draw attention on the shelves of a bookshop or in an online listing.