Aline Templeton is one of those authors who has been on my radar for some time as her books seem to gather consistently good reviews. I’ve not managed to read one of her titles until now, however, when I decided to try the first in her DI Marjory Fleming series, Cold in the Earth. The book turns out to have a good, solid double plot, be well written, and have a great lead character in Marjory.
Laura Sonfeldt’s marriage has failed, so she quits her job as a psychologist at a New York women’s refuge and decides to return to her roots in England. Before she can return, though, her mother dies of a stroke. Clearing out her mother’s house and possessions reminds Laura strongly of her beloved half-sister Dizzy, who vanished some years ago when Laura was eight, and has not been heard from since. Moving to London as a temporary base, Laura writes a freelance article about her sister and the effect of a missing family member on those left behind. One of the responses from readers turns out to be from Max Mason, a young man who claims that the missing girl, whom he calls by her real name of Diana, worked as a housekeeper to his family. Laura and Max meet, and though she is not very taken with him, Laura decides to go to Scotland to see if she can find out more about what happened to her sister.
The second strand of the book concerns the police force in the Galloway region of Scotland as the first signs of the upcoming foot and mouth crisis are recorded. Marjory Fleming, as well as being a DI, is a farmer’s wife, so she as much as anyone is concerned by the news coming from the south. Gradually, hope is lost as farms are closed down and animals killed by the hated men from the ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food – causing angst for Marjory as she has to protect the government vets while being out of sympathy with their actions and seeing her own livelihood threatened and her family split up. These sections of the novel are really very powerful, conveying not only a good knowledge of events during that time, but the devastating economic and emotional effects on the small community who love their livestock. Marjory’s husband Bill is a victim of the culling, as is Conrad Mason, Marjory’s hair-trigger sergeant, whose rich family owns a prize herd of Welsh bulls dating back to the old grandfather’s alleged friendship with Ernest Hemingway.
Conrad Mason is Max’s cousin, and hence the Masons are the link between the two strands of the novel. Upon Laura’s arrival in Galloway, the two parts fuse into one, as a body is discovered on the Masons’ land when a pit is dug to bury the slaughtered bulls. Could this be Diana; could it be Max’s mother, who abruptly left some years ago at roughly the same time as Diana; or could it be someone else? Despite the internal police politics and budget-watching culture, and the clout held by the ghastly Brett Mason (Conrad’s mother), Marjory and Laura press on to discover the truth.
The characters of Laura (in particular her use of psychology to deal with the difficult people she encounters) and Marjory (and her interactions with her family) are what makes this novel special, as well as the moving yet unsentimental account of the effects of the government’s foot and mouth disease policy on people’s lives and personalities, a policy heavily criticised here by an author who would have preferred the (alternative) vaccination strategy. The main weakness of the novel is in the final quarter, when the identity of the body becomes obvious and the rather few suspects float around doing things without anyone keeping an eye on them. The nutty Mason family and their varying obsessions with bulls sometimes seem rather hard to imagine in the 21st century, but I am no expert on life in remote communities. The plot resolution contains no surprises and is something of an anticlimax, even rather clunky, given the intelligence of the earlier part of the book. In addition, there is a subplot involving a woman who owns a dress shop that is initially promising, but turns out to be disappointing in that actions of those concerned in it are not believable but are merely there to support the plot.
Despite these slight let-downs, the book overall is a very good read, and I shall certainly look forward to reading more in this series, and possibly some of Aline Templeton’s other books.
I purchased my copy of this book (the 2006 edition paperback).
There are now six novels in the DI Marjory Fleming series. Cold in the Earth is the first, and the next five have been reviewed at Euro Crime. Before that, the author wrote half a dozen standalone novels. Read more about her and her books at her website.
Read other reviews of Cold in the Earth at: DJ’s Krimiblog; Suite 101 (ad alert); and The Scotsman (though you need to sign up to a “7-day free trial” to read more than the first paragraph). This novel does seem to have been quite widely reviewed when it first came out 6 years ago, but these reviews no longer seem to be visible on the Internet after a 10 minute search (the maximum amount of time I was prepared to spend). See also: Books from Scotland, fiction from Dumfries and Galloway.