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Review: Fiction

The academic life? It's murder Add to ...

How do you solve a mystery? How do you write a book? The techniques for starting both are surprisingly similar. Find an intriguing question and, pen and dagger tucked under cloak, search for clues.

Dr. Murray Watson, last name not accidental, is an academic planning to write a book about an obscure Scottish poet, Archie Lunan, who drowned under mysterious circumstances more than 30 years ago. With only one slim volume of Lunan's poems to go on, Watson wants to go beyond the poetry. He wants to uncover the secrets of the poet: How and why did Lunan die?

This is the point at which the paths of a detective and an academic writer diverge. For the detective, the trail might lead down a dark alley, through an abandoned warehouse to the interrogation of a shady-looking blonde. For the academic, it's a trip to the archives, a long stint in the library and a phone interview with an elderly professor who can't remember if he hung up the receiver.

Watson, a slightly drunk and disorderly man with enough self-awareness to make him sweet, shuffles through the first few chapters of this book. While he's good company, and Welsh's keen eye for detail in Edinburgh and Glasgow makes the reading enjoyable, the story doesn't exactly get the pulse racing. Or, more accurately, Watson's clandestine coupling with the head of department's wife gets his pulse racing, but not ours. Otherwise, Watson pursues the stuff of academic research, opening boxes, reading books and making phone calls. As Watson himself admits, when he gets obsessed with a research topic, "It's dull. You know what I'm like … a train-spotting stamp collector."

The book gains momentum in the second part, when Watson goes to the Island of Lismore, a small, isolated spot on the west side of Scotland, to search for clues. Welsh's descriptions of the landscape and island culture are worth the read alone. She tells of a wet and wind-blasted place full of secrets, the perfect setting for a mystery. She captures the tensions of island life, the intricate relationships between the generations of families, their close ties and the distance they keep. It is in those distances, Watson finds as he gains the trust of a few islanders, where the secrets hide.

Much of the imagery in the novel is literary. Though exaggerated for dramatic effect, it's a story about the process of writing as much as it is a mystery. Watson struggles with a problem familiar to writers and detectives alike, how to weigh your relationships against the call of your vocation. As he comes up against his own conflicted family and failed love affairs, he uncovers conflicting information about Lunan's tortured life. Was Lunan a man "more in love with the idea of being a writer than with the need to create," or did he sacrifice everything to his art? The story becomes increasingly tense with a bit of witchcraft, gore and humour thrown in. For Watson, finding answers about Lunan becomes a murky matter of life and death.

Louise Welsh's first novel, The Cutting Room, won several awards, including the 2002 Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger. She was chosen as one of Britain's Best First Novelists in 2002. Now, her fourth book, Naming the Bones, cements her reputation for intriguing stories and thoughtful prose.

While academic research may not carry the same intrigue as detective work, Naming the Bones is a well-crafted and entertaining book. Welsh has the ability to dig deep beneath the surface of her subjects. Ultimately, she wields a pen that will keep you hunting for clues to the end.

Claire Cameron's first novel, The Line Painter, was nominated for best first novel by the Crime Writers of Canada.

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