A gripping and atmospheric novel of suspense, set in the Scottish Highlands in the 1950s, featuring a small-town newspaper staff.
In the Highlands of 1950s Scotland, a boy is found dead in a canal lock. Two young girls tell such a fanciful story of his disappearance that no one believes them. The local newspaper staff—including Joanne Ross, the part-time typist embroiled in an abusive marriage, and her boss, a seasoned journalist determined to revamp the paper—set out to uncover and investigate the crime. Suspicion falls on several townspeople, all of whom profess their innocence. Alongside these characters are the people of the town and neighboring glens; a refugee Polish sailor; an Italian family whose café boasts the first known cappuccino machine in the north of Scotland; and a corrupt town clerk subverting the planning laws to line his own pocket.
Together, these very different Scots harbor deep and troubling secrets underneath their polished and respectable veneers—revelations that may prevent the crime from being solved and may keep the town firmly in the clutches of its shadowy past.
This reading group guide forA Small Death in the Great Glenincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author A.D. Scott. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A young boy has been found dead in the canal, and the members of a small community in the Highlands want answers. Suspicion quickly falls on a Polish sailor who has gone missing from a Russian ship. The year is 1956, and foreigners to this small Scottish town are guilty until proven innocent. Despite a lack of evidence, the police and townsmen are ready to convict.
The staff of the town’s century-old local newspaper—including new editor in chief John McAllister—may be the only people intent on finding the real culprit. But as McAllister is about to find out, the ghosts of his past connect him with the murder more closely than he could have ever imagined. Obsessed with the case, he is determined to uncover the truth. But preserving the status quo reigns supreme in the community; corrupt town clerks quietly go about their business, battered wives tell no tales, and highly-respected figures hold dark secrets behind closed doors.
1) John McAllister joins the Highland Gazette staff looking to make a change, but veteran editor Don McLeod initially refuses to go against age-old tradition. By the end of the book, Don begins to come around to McAllister’s ideas. How else does the theme of “change” triumphing over “tradition” play out in the novel?
2) Though the battles are over, the war continues to touch the lives of A. D. Scott’s characters. Select a few of the main characters and discuss the lasting effects of the war on each. Have any of the characters been impacted by the war in similar ways?
3) “I’m not his possession. I think what I like.” While Chiara clearly rejects the notion of a woman belonging to a man, Joanne finds herself hard-pressed to escape Bill’s grasp—and fist. What steps does Joanne take, physically and emotionally, toward reclaiming herself from her possessive husband?
4) Joanne repeatedly claims that she will not leave Bill for the sake of her daughters. “I must stay. For their sakes.” Discuss Joanne’s thought process in this regard. How does her staying with Bill affect the children positively? Negatively?
5) Peter Kowalski, a Polish escapee himself, never hesitates to help a fellow countryman—even if it means putting himself and the Corelli family at risk. Is he right in doing so? Why do you think he keeps these encounters a secret from Chiara, his future wife?
6) When Karel “Karl” Cieszynski nearly fails in his self-proclaimed “mission” to bring the crucifix to Scotland, he is saddened beyond words. Why is it so important that the crucifix reaches Peter? What does this piece of jewelry represent?
7) The people of the town appear relieved when Karl is arrested for Jamie’s murder. However, few seem to question whether or not he actually committed the crime—including Joanne. Discuss why the townspeople are so eager to sweep the whole thing under the carpet. What are they trying to achieve?
8) Discuss Wee Jean’s relationship with Grandad Ross. Why does Granddad Ross have such a soft spot in his heart for his youngest granddaughter?
9) Joanne and WPC Ann McPherson are examples of women who attempt to succeed in the workplace despite the many obstacles they encounter. If the two of them sat down in Gino’s café for a cappuccino and a chat, what might their conversation sound like?
10) While blackmailing Councilor Grieg in his office, Joanne suddenly pushes for Grieg to acknowledge his daughter with Mhairi, even if only in private. Why do you think she does this?
11) Why does Annie ultimately decide to tell the truth? Do you think she fully realizes the implications of what she saw?
12) Is it a reporter’s duty to print the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Consider the information the staff members withhold from the paper; are their reasons for doing so valid?
13) Does McAllister’s personal agenda against Father Morrison hinder or help his ability to perform his duty as a reporter? In the end, which is more important to him: avenging his brother’s death or getting the story straight?
14) Do Inspector Thompson or Father Morrison show any signs of remorse for their actions in the novel, or in their pasts?
15) “We know evil exists. I try not to see it, but it is there, in big and small ways. And always balanced by good.” Mrs. McLean’s words demonstrate her eternal optimism, even after having lived through two wars and their aftermath. How do other characters in the book demonstrate optimism for the future? Have any characters completely lost all sense of hope?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Chiara and Joanne enjoy some of their happiest moments while in Gino’s café. Meet with your reading group at a local café to discuss the book over a hot cup of cappuccino or some sweet ice cream.
2. “A newspaper was no place for a woman.” Joanne suffered for her decision to be a working woman—whether it be due to Bill’s shaken ego, the community’s glaring disapproval, or her own insecurities. Using the Internet or resources at your library, find out more about how women entering the workplace were viewed during the 1950s, both in Scotland and around the world.
3. Rob and Peter’s band, The Meltdown Boys, shock the glen with a style of music no one has heard before—1950s American rock ‘n’ roll. Make a playlist of music from this genre, including “Rock Around the Clock” (Bill Haley and Comets) and “Tutti Frutti” (Little Richard), the only two songs The Meltdown Boys know how to play. How has American rock ‘n’ roll changed since the 1950s? Why was it so shocking to the people of the Highlands?
4. A. D. Scott uses her words to describe the visual beauty of the Scottish Highlands; why not try using a paintbrush? Have each group member select a descriptive passage as inspiration for a piece of art. After the creation session, group members can share their passages and paintings.
A Conversation with A.D. Scott
What first drew you to the mystery/suspense genre?
I love reading mysteries; I especially love novels that give a sense of time and place. My favorites are too many to mention but Donna Leon, Mala Nunn, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, and Laura Lipman are wonderful. I love mysteries that immerse the reader in another culture so I am a fan of Scandinavian and Icelandic crime writers and the Aurelio Zen stories set in Sicily.
Is there a different process to writing a suspense novel than writing other types of fiction?
Writing a suspense novel makes the reader (and the writer) try to puzzle out what is going on, so a writer can use this curiosity to explore themes that interest them. For example, small town newspapers are a true reflection of a community, every town has at least one and they haven’t changed much in sixty years. What have changed are national newspapers and magazines—for better or worse is a matter of conjecture.So the writing process doesn’t change, but the opportunity to reflect while plotting or solving the mystery are more.
A Small Death in the Great Glen has a large cast of characters, each of whom has his or her own thoughts and feelings. Was it difficult to develop so many characters in one book?
Sitting in cafés, traveling by train or bus, watching people as they go about everyday life, I find myself constantly imaging their inner lives. I give them family and friends, but more than that, I imagine their dreams. Sometimes this habit gets me into trouble; when I am telling a story, I have to stop and think, did this really happen or was it something I made up? People, characters, everyday life is fascinating and complex, much more so that big events.
Which character in your book do you admire most, and why?
What a tough question! I think Jenny McPhee would be my choice; she is who she is, with no doubts, no questions. She is sure of her history, her family, and she can move around the country whenever the fancy takes her. I love strong women. Most of all I envy her singing voice.
Malla Nunn, author of A Beautiful Place to Die, commended you for your “intimate knowledge of the Scottish Highlands.” Besides having grown up there, did you conduct any special research to add to the authenticity of your story’s setting?
I have a detailed, large scale, contour map of the area printed in 1954. The colors are beautiful and the shades of green and brown and blue are a wonderful ‘aide memoire’ to my childhood. Also, when I was at school we went everywhere by bicycle, often long distances, this is the best way to know and remember a place. In those days, even a nine-year-old could wander off on her own. A sense of smell is also important. Close your eyes, think of the time of year and remember what is smells like. This always works for me.
When did you first learn of “hoodie crow,” and why did you choose to reference it in your novel?
Hoodie cows were (are) scary creatures. The first time I remember encountering them was innocently watching newborn lambs cavorting in a field of snow. Then, seeing blood and a dead lamb, the farmer told us it had been attacked by hoodies. Horrible! The hooded crow, to give it its proper name, is associated with the faeries and there are numerous references to them in myths, legend, and folk tales. Twa Corbies (Two Crows) is a famous Scottish poem or song where the crows sit on a dyke discussing dining on a slain knight lying beneath them. These are the tales and songs we grew up on.
Many characters in your novel are considered outcasts by the community, whether it be for their gender, occupation, or nationality. Can you discuss this theme and why it is so important to the book?
Another hard question—and a rather revealing one. Perhaps it is because I was one of those children who drove adults crazy, always asking questions, never content with the answer, always attracted to anything unusual, never to the safe and normal and, to me, boring town.
Which writers have had the most significant effect on your own writing? How did their work affect your own?
Robert Louis Stevenson (RSL) to us Scots; he is the novelist above all others. One of my ambitions is to visit his grave in Samoa and say ‘Thank You.’ Coorying under the quilt on a stormy, rainy, or snowy night and reading Kidnapped or Treasure Island, scaring myself, losing myself, in warm Caribbean waters or the windswept stormy Minch, every sentence was magic to me. He also showed me a life beyond a small town in Scotland and opened up the idea of living a life of possibilities.
What’s next for the staff of the Highland Gazette?
In the next book the Highland Gazette starts to change and all I can say is that it is more of the same, but very different. As the Gazette expands, McAllister hires some outlandish new contributors, and the scene is set more on the east coast than out west. The theme came to me from the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” There is one character in the new book that absolutely fascinates me and the more I explore this person the more intrigued I become. There are also new characters that touch on Scotland’s part in strange and exotic events in the Far East in the nineteenth century.
A Small Death in the Great Glen is your first published novel. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for aspiring novelists?
Just give it a go, with no expectations other than the joy of writing, of creating. If you really want to write, write every day, a few words, a few lines, but commit to it wholeheartedly. Above all, read; read everything, anything, read voraciously, give up everything else to read, read, read.
A.D. Scott was born in the Highlands of Scotland and educated at Inverness Royal Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She has worked in theater and in magazines, and is currently writing the next book in the acclaimed Highland Gazette mystery series.
"A.D. Scott’s beautifully written debut novel brims with intimate knowledge of the Scottish Highlands and of the dark secrets that lie behind the walls of a quaint rural village. Vividly realized with memorable characters and a stunning setting, A Small Death in the Great Glen is a novel to savor." — Malla Nunn, author of A Beautiful Place to Die
"An impressive first novel. I'd have imagined 1950s Inverness as gray and humorless, but Scott uses the background of religious intolerance, prejudice and petty jealousies, to bring together an engaging cast of warm and colorful characters. The central protagonists, all of whom work for a local newspaper, are interesting, well-rounded and sympathetic. I hope to meet them again." — Ann Cleeves, author of Red Bones
"This atmospheric novel sets you firmly in small town Scotland of the 1950s. The characters are engaging and the suspense mounts along with a growing sense of dread as events surrounding the death of a young boy unfold. Once you start reading, you'll find it hard to put down." — Peter Robinson, New York Times bestselling author of The Price of Love
"This splendid debut mystery has everything going for it…Scott’s writing is engaging, and her plotting Macbethian…The characters of the crusading small-town newspaper are skillfully drawn and will have readers rooting for them unequivocally…captivating on every level" —Booklist, starred review
"Oh what a delight, this book! Almost perfect in every way. A.D. Scott's fine debut novel deserves a spot this year on everyone's 'must-read' list." —William Kent Krueger, author of Heaven's Keep
"This mystery is a delight to unravel, with its lively dialect-spouting players, inhabiting a lavishly described, forbidding but beautiful landscape. A rollickying, cozy escapade" —Kirkus
"Written with humor, compassion and a fine sense of tragedy, A Small Death in the Great Glenis the first in a series by this promising new author" —Bookpage
"A rich portrayal of provincial life in the middle of the 20th century" —Romantic Times Review
"Scott brilliantly evokes the life of a small Scottish town and touches on issues that continue to perplex and horrify us. Score a big victory for "A Small Death." —The Richmond Times-Dispatch