Crucible of Secrets by Shona MacLean

24th Aug 2011


Combining the escapist pleasure of a trip into the past with the propulsive narrative of the police procedural, and with healthy repeat business waiting for the winners, there’s no end of new entrants to the field.

Shona MacLean, who has a background in academic history, is carving a niche for herself with her Alexander Seaton books of which Crucible of Secrets is the third.

MacLean’s protagonist, who narrates his own story, shares an academic bent and a homeland with his creator: Seaton is the regent of Marischal College in Aberdeen in the early 1630s.

The peace of the community is shattered when its unassuming and diligent librarian is found brutally murdered and the principal of the college asks Seaton to conduct his own discreet investigation in light of the unsophisticated approach of the local baillie.

Seaton soon finds that there was more to his reserved colleague’s life than he suspected, and is gradually drawn deeper into a hidden world of conspiracy, forbidden knowledge and, inevitably, more bodies.

This is unashamedly a genre novel and does not deviate in any meaningful way from the well-established structure of the form. We’re introduced to a respectable array of possible allies and suspects, a decent number of plot avenues and red herrings are provided and additional murders arrive to punctuate chapter endings with a regularity you could set your watch by. All is as it should be.

The pleasure of these novels comes instead from their texture. MacLean’s writing is clean and clear and her characterisation is very strong. It’s a pleasant change from the infallible heroes of many thrillers that Seaton himself is prone to fits of jealousy and emotional outbursts and a sub-plot examining his relationship with his wife is one of the most successful parts of the book. The unusual setting of Stuart Aberdeen is not evoked as pungently as CJ Sansom‘s Tudor London but feels coherent and convincing.

The relatively remote location and academic setting allows for an enjoyable focus on some more unfamiliar aspects of the period but also makes the world feel a little too much like a closed system.

While it’s free of the sometimes awkward cameos from real historical figures which are common in the genre, there’s not much sense of the wider world and the currents of history in the book and its conflicts accordingly feel rather small-scale.

Like many other novels of its type, Crucible of Secrets draws on the tradition of lost and arcane knowledge as a macguffin but here the stakes never feel very high and the story feels slightly low-energy as a result.

Ultimately, it’s not the first among its equals but it’s a solidly enjoyable read which ticks every expected box. I’d happily read another Alexander Seaton book with a cup of tea on a wet afternoon – and that, to a large extent, is its point.

Published by Quercus earlier this month, you can buy it in hardback for £10, or in paperback for £7.01.

Rating: 3/5

Other recommended reading: In the field of historical thrillers, CJ Sansom‘s hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake casts a deservedly long shadow; his best adventure so far is Revelation.

More Tudor thrills are on offer in SJ ParrisGiordano Bruno series which begins with Heresy. For something more light-hearted – and, for a pleasant change, with a female protagonist – Fidelis Morgan‘s Restoration-set Countess Ashby de la Zouche books, starting with Unnatural Fire, are larky fun.

For those after a bit more literary heft, the ultimate progenitor of much of the current crop is arguably Umberto Eco‘s extraordinary The Name of the Rose.

Kate Phillips