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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 30 June 2017

"A Handful of Ash" by Marsali Taylor

I read this immediately after reading "Death of a Travelling Man" by M C Beaton and was at once impressed by the greater depth of the writing. There was more concern with character and place and language; more time was taken to build these and to build the atmosphere of "ill-viket", malevolence. The only similarity seemed to be that they were both murder mysteries set in Scotland.

I should have read this after reading the first two in the series. I have now read Death on a Longship (highly recommended) and there are many of the same characters involved which is great but you can more or less scrub long-running characters from your list of suspects. I need to read things in series! The Trowie Mound Murders, second in the series, is also a brilliant book.

This had all the ingredients of the genre done right:

  • The narrator and protagonist was a loner, damaged in the past. She yearns for love but isn't sure and that was not too heavy handed. The features of her character were different: her love of boats, her operatic mother, her religion. 
  • I guessed the killer early on but I could not be certain. There were plenty of red herrings strewn across my path and most were highly plausible. When the solution came it knitted all the clues together and it seemed the only sensible solution. 
  • There were moments of excitement when the hero's life is threatened.
  • This was a modern mystery so police were there and all the panoply of the forensics were available and yet the hero had no access to all this and so they could, just like the reader, attempt to solve it from the given clues. It worked.

There was also a real sense that the relatives of the victims grieved.

But most of all the prose was beautiful. I lost count of the fabulous descriptions of the countryside. The author is a tour guide in the Shetlands; if I could I'd fly up there tomorrow for at least a month.

The best bits:

  • "These girls knew Annette. The tallest of them was giving her a hard glare from under her dye-black fringe. Annette looked back, pleading at first, then her eyes hardened and her lips set in a straight line. The tallest girl lifted one hand, and rubbed her thumb against her first two fingers in the universal 'money' gesture. The other two sneered." (p 4)
  • "The tallest girl's hand fell slowly. Her look would have stopped a seagull in flight. The black, glossy leather, the grey frills of skirt, the poised attention of the turned heads, gave them the look of a trio of hooded crows sizing up a dying sheep. They were an ill-viket trio. If I was Annette, I'd be watching my back." (p 4)
  • "On a moonlit night, alone on deck, with the sea in a great saucer all around you, it was easy to see things." (p 9)
  • "A snakes-wedding of blue nylon rope" (p 20)
  • "Above us, the fissures between the clouds became creamy-grey, then pale blue." (p 31)
  • "His brisk walk had turned into a sleep-walking daander, feet placed unevenly as if the floor had grown unsteady under him." (p 31)
  • "There was the tin smell of snow in the air." (p 35)
  • "The little turrets had disdainful eyebrows over the latticed windows." (p 51)
  • "The wind searched out the cracks between glove and sleeve, cap and cheek, scarf and neck, and stung like a wasp." (p 51)
  • "How we rewrite the dead." (p 59)
  • "There was the green smell of moss from a grass-choked gutter." (p 61)
  • "A gossiping of starlings swirled around me" (p 61)
  • "Cloud shadows chased each other over the hills, and the sea was burnished silver." (p 150) First half of that sentence is sublime, the second less original.
  • "The cloth in my mouth tasted of fabric softener ... and the intense floral taste made me want to gag." (p 166)
What a treat. A murder mystery that works like a novel. Hope there's more!


  1. Dear Dave, I'm delighted you've enjoyed A Handful of Ash so much - it's blogs like yours that make a writer's day. Thank you! Yes, indeed, there are five Cass adventures out now, with a sixth in the offing, so I hope you'll keep reading. best wishes, Marsali

    1. I shall definitely be reading another Cass in the near future. I'll let you know. Thanks for writing them!