Gripping thriller with real characters

2009-03-04 00:00

POET and novelist Andrew Greig, whose books I relish, here revisits the territory and some of the characters of his The Return of John MacNab. But this time, instead of a light-hearted adventure for a cheery bunch attempting to recreate the circumstances of one of John Buchan’s happiest pieces of fiction, Kirsty, Neil and others both familiar and new, are mixed up in an attempt to find the real Stone of Destiny.

The Stone is the chunk of sandstone that sits under the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey. Edward I stole it from the Scots, and that still rankles north of the border. However, there have always, ever since it first went south, been those who reckon he was fobbed off with any old bit of rock, and the real and much more impressive stone was hidden away somewhere in Scotland. In 1950, a bunch of lively lads pinched the Westminster version and spirited it away to Scotland to the horror and embarrassment of a po-faced establishment. It was recovered, of course, but is still a stone of contention between not always very United Kingdom neighbours. It has also been the subject of other novels, including Nigel Tranter’s lively if lightweight The Stone.

Greig’s novel has a multiplicity of Stones to deal with — new fakes, old fakes, fake fakes, cryptic clues and hunts to be had all over Scotland, the Isles and Norway. It is Buchan territory all right, but Greig’s writing is nothing like the aptly named “snobbery with violence” brush the earlier writer has been justly tarred with. Greig’s characters are real, flawed people. They are all dealing with their own personal demons, and while there is plenty of violent incident, its consequences come with real blood and tears. I whizzed through this one, and loved it. Now for a re-run of The Return of John MacNab — which you don’t need to have read to enjoy this gripping thriller with poetry in its heart.

Margaret von Klemperer

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