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I downloaded the Kindle version of Hue & Cry by Shirley McKay for the simple reason that it was only 49p, the fact that it was historical fiction also drew me in as I'm getting bored of my modern crime thrillers at the moment so had subconsciously been looking for an 'in' into this (marginally) more gentle genre.
Hue & Cry is set in the 16th century, in Scotlands blossoming university city of St. Andrews. A boy is found dead of a head wound, suspicion falls upon the man who tutored him to try and gain a university place. Another death, this time the local dyer, occurs very shortly afterwards - the man charged with investigating these events, Hew Cullan, is convinced the murders are linked.
Matters are complicated by the fact that Hew had been good friends with the accused, only his six year stint in France separating the pair. He doesn't believe his friend capable of such a violent and cold act and uses his (convenient) legal training to do his best for Nicholas Colp, fighting what seems like a losing battle to save him from the hangman's noose. Colp can't fight for himself; a mysterious leg wound has festered and left him battling lockjaw, after Hew's sister saves his life by administering hemlock Colp falls into a coma as deep as death - and when Meg Cullan also becomes implicated in a further death it starts looking like she might be branded a witch.
And here I'll start off with a complaint. Despite the fact that I really enjoyed Hue & Cry, I felt some interesting storylines were wrapped up too quickly or even forgotten about completely in some cases. Meg is a good example; she's performed an illegal 'forced coma' on Nicholas Colp and is fairly well known as a woman who grows herbs for their medicinal value. At a period in history where they were burning witches by their hundreds I'm surprised the author didn't make more of her character, I actually liked Meg but felt a lot of excitement could have been added to the story if she'd been placed under suspicion - as I'm sure she would have been in real life in religious zealot Scotland!
Her brother, Hew, is a likeable character, written in a way that makes me think he was a bit of a dandy while living in France but he is brought back down to earth upon arriving back in England with not even a horse to his name. There's a slightly amusing sub-story regarding Hew buying a horse that eats and poos more than any other horse but this comes across as silly after a while - especially as the author can't seem to decide whether this horse should be hugely disobedient or just disobedient! Hew's role in the story is simple, he wants to clear his friends name. This aspect of Hue and Cry flows well and there don't seem to be too many coincidental happenings to make the job easier for him, I must admit I had a good idea how the story was going to end but there are enough twists and turns to hold the readers interest.
This isn't a particularly gruesome novel despite the fact that there are three high profile deaths, stories of torture and Colps own tale of suffering and near death. In fact, the section of the book I found the most sickening were not the mentions of death but the horrendous way in which the Principal of the college treated his poorest students - the non-paying bursars being treated like slaves compared to the more lucrative rich boys. I was pleased to eventually read that one of these poor students was pivotal (admittedly in a small way) in helping Master Colp out of his predicament as although Colp isn't a particularly likeable character it was obvious as the reader that he was neither a child murderer or a sodomite - the latter charge strangely being seen as far more serious than the former, and the one that looked likely to see him face the gallows.
A criticism I have of Hue and Cry is the lack of descriptiveness. When reading a novel set so long ago I enjoy reading about the scenery, clothing and generally like to know more of the era. Apart from the odd comment about Meg's skirt or Hew's hose there was very little in the way of description to help me picture how any of the characters or scenes looked - in fact, after finishing the story I'm still not entirely sure what colour hair Hew has! One area that is described very well is the dyers home, described too well actually as I actually felt sick reading about the awful smell of lye and imagining the locals walking to the towns outskirts to urinate in the dyers barrel!
The story itself is fast paced and a definite page turner; even taking into account the niggles I've already mentioned, the tale is a good one. Hew discovers clues on his own merit rather than having them fall into his lap, he flits from one lead to another and the reader can virtually see his mind working to put everything together. He doesn't want to work in law, his brilliant lawyer father pushed him into it where Hew would have settled for a less illustrious career. His role in solving this case does nothing to ingratiate the law to him, as the story goes on it becomes more and more apparent that Hew detests all the frustrating nuances of law in these times. There are very few main characters in Hue and Cry which makes it easy to keep track of who's doing what and their role within the story, with the exception of Meg (and Hew to a degree) none of them are people I think I'd particularly like in real life even though only one or two of them seem to be truly nasty characters.
I'd recommend Hue and Cry as a historical crime novel; it's in the same vein as CJ Sansom's Shardlake series, although unfortunately not as engaging or 'clever' with the storyline. It's still a good story however, I just feel it could have been so much more.