September 12, 2011

BLOOD IN THE GLENS

by Jean McLennan
256 pages, Black and White

Review by Sharon Gunason Pottinger

Blood in the Glens is neither your fudge tin Scotland nor the gritty tartan noir of Ian Rankin and fiction crime writers, but it is all about murders in the Highlands of Scotland, that mysterious, underpopulated, much romanticized land at the far edge of the United Kingdom. If you are curious about stories from the highlands without castles, heather, clearances, or travel memoirs from famous people, then this book should be a welcome read. Likewise, if you enjoy reading analyses of crimes, then this book offers a wealth of information about murders in the Highlands spanning a period of nearly 60 years.

Despite its commercial and therefore blood spattered cover art and subtitle, “True Crime from the Scottish Highlands,” the dozen stories in this book are not grim or grisly (though some of the cases described are). The author, a retired lawyer “with a deep interest in criminal law” writes with a sympathetic but matter of fact tone so that the unpleasant details are part of the overall pattern that she looks for in all the cases. This is her first book and it shows the careful editing of someone working at her new craft. It must have been a challenge both to organize the complex cases into a coherent narrative and to know just how much background knowledge about criminal proceedings to include. For the most part, McLennan got this just right. A few of the longer discussions about the differences between Scottish and English law might be overlong to a non-resident reader, but, as an ex pat living in Scotland, I found them especially interesting. A unique aspect of Scottish law is that it is possible to receive a verdict of “not proven”. “Not proven”, however, keeps the alleged perpetrator and, sadly, the victim’s family and community in a middle ground. Scotland also has more strict guidelines about the time for a trial, limits on incarceration, and rules of evidence, which played a significant role in at least one of the cases MacLennan describes.

McLennan’s Blood in the Glens is good reading even for those readers like myself who prefer safer topics or stories of death at a safe distance of time or place. The book is divided into murders in Scotland, murders by Scots, and then four still unsolved cases, followed by an epilogue in which she reflects on the cases and offers some perspective on patterns or observations from the dozen cases. The organisation made it easy for me to read it in safe doses of a story at time.

One quibble is that the cover, which seems to be all that some reviewers have read, exclaims that the highlands have had more than their fair share of murders. In fact, as McLennan points out, the highlands are comparatively safe and the murder rate is actually lower than elsewhere. Visitors as well as residents are more at risk of motor vehicle accidents or falling off cliffs than being murdered.

The author seems a bit disappointed that no in depth psychological or sociological patterns emerge from the analysis of the cases she selected. As she commented in a presentation to my local SWRI (Scottish Women’s Rural Institute), the only common thread among the murders is a sense that murder appeared to the perpetrator to be the only way out of an increasingly desperate situation. In her epilogue the author does offer statistics that suggest somewhat counterintuitively that longer sentences for murderers are not likely to be effective, and, more reassuringly, that murderers, despite the terrifying headlines of serial killers (one of whom is included in Blood in the Glens), are not likely to murder again.

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