The Turning Tide

Catriona McPherson

Hodder & Stoughton, £20.99

Review by Fiona Rintoul

“There’s no point in accusing Shakespeare of snobbery,” my English teacher used to tell us when the Bolshevik roar of a roomful of East Kilbridean teenagers grew too loud. “Everyone was a snob in his day.”

Perhaps the same is true of invented 1930s’ lady detectives. But shouldn’t there be some limits?

“I could not recall ever being left alone in a room with one of my own babies, sans nanny, sans nursery nurse, sans even useful housemaid who had graduated from a childhood beset with younger siblings, but my grandchildren were obtruding into my life much more than either of my sons had ever done,” complains Dandy Gilver, The Turning Tide’s perkily monikered protagonist, after her daughter-in-law, Mallory, is dumped on her at the family seat of Gilverton avec twin babies, having sacked the help.

At this point, I must confess, I was, sans a word of a lie, about to hurl the book across the room. But one has a job to do, and my beloved Labrador was in the road. And so, on I ploughed, as Dandy was released from grandmotherly travails by a letter from Cramond, entreating her and sidekick Alec Osborne to investigate, not a murder exactly, but a deranged, topless ferrywoman named – wait for it – Vesper Kemp.

Oh aye, and a young man had just drowned at Cramond who happened to be a Gilver family friend. (“Oh poor Simone! What a stupid waste. We’re all so worried that they might have to fight and then to lose a fine boy in a silly way like that!”) Could there have been foul play? I leave you to guess.

Off to Cramond it is, then, just in time to evade “three carabancs full of mothers and babies from the East End of Glasgow” invited by Mallory. (Can you imagine?) Left behind are husband Hugh, a one-dimensional silent type, and Grant, the lady’s maid (or something), who’s jolly clever for a servant and shall reappear as sure as Christmas.

In Cramond, the doughty duo meets a host of characters who have all the depth of a ripple tank but aren’t half as much fun. The tortured minister of Cramond Kirk (his wife is German), who, for reasons best known to himself, has employed this eejit pair to sort out Vesper. The spinster Misses. The surly millers who aren’t really millers. And Vesper herself. Raving. Titties flying. A ferrywoman disinclined to ferry. This is what happens when independent-minded single women have affairs with men 10 YEARS their junior. Shocking, isn't it?

Then there are the common folk in their dingy cottages. Chief among them is Mrs Cullen, an old school friend of the benighted Vesper. “She let me grow vegetables in her garden over there, for I’ve no room for more’n a coal bunker out that back door,” she confides to Dandy, sounding more Barnsley than Embra. Scunnered perhaps by yet another patronising visit from upper-crust private eyes (“What’s your name, dear?”), she lets slip hints about “the secret of Cramond”.

“Leave me be,” she implores the tiresome twosome, and one is so with her in that moment. “In the name of Mercury, leave me alone. Please. Forget what I said and, snakes upon me, let me go.”

In the name of Mercury? Snakes Upon me? Eh? Well, believe it or not, Mercury, the god of commerce, is mixed up in the secret of Cramond. Go figure, as our brash American cousins might say. I won’t spoil it by telling you how. Suffice to say that as The Turning Tide grinds to its implausible conclusion, all is revealed. (Enter Grant.)

This is the 14th book in the Dandy Gilver series, which is penned by Edinburgh-born Catriona McPherson, and so the lady detective clearly has her fans. The books have been sprinkled with awards, and you can sort of see why. McPherson captures a certain milieu, and there are insights into domestic life in the 1930s – particularly women’s lives – and some pleasing historical details, such as motorcars with town and country horns.

I don’t mind a bit of improbability in a detective novel. I don’t even mind a bit of posh plonker. But there is far too much of both in this volume, unleavened by sterner stuff. It’s 1936, but the growing menace of Fascism gets only the occasional mention. (“That dreadful man. People laugh at him.”) The domestic agenda is largely a blank.

However, if you like cosy aristo-sleuthing, you may very well enjoy The Turning Tide. If not, be warned: it’ll set your teeth on edge.