ABERDEEN, Scotland – 1840
Return to an age where sail was being challenged by steam, new continents were opening, and the world was full of opportunities for people to be as good—or as evil—as they chose. When the body of a local shipwright is found on the beach, neither the customers and suppliers he cheated nor the women he molested are surprised. But the mystery intrigues woodcarver John Grant, who determines to seek out the truth of the killing. His work and his investigations bring him into contact with William Anderson, a rich merchant—and his daughter Elizabeth. Commissioned to create a figurehead that combines the features of two women, John eventually uncovers a sordid tale of blackmail and death as, simultaneously, he struggles to resist the pangs of unexpected love.
Poor old Bessie Rennie found herself in great trouble as a result of stealing a watch from the dead body of Jimmie Crombie, the shipwright, on the Aberdeen beach. Had she murdered him, or did he drown? The local Watch are useless, but John Grant, figurehead maker and ship carver, is determined to find the murderer even if Jimmie deserved his fate.
William Anderson, wealthy ship owner and trader, had commissioned Crombie to build him a new ship, so he is concerned about completing the build, while his independently minded daughter, Helen, not a typical rich young lady of 1840, wants to help her father in his business as well as solve the murder. Inevitably, Helen and John Grant are drawn together as she models for the figurehead for her father’s ship and they begin to share their investigations.
Events slowly reveal which of Jimmie’s enemies might have wished him dead, as the author shows the comfortable gentrified life of the Anderson family contrasting with extreme poverty among the fisherman, thieves and prostitutes. While John is able to span the lives of both communities, Helen takes dangerous risks in seeking out the company of Jimmie’s widow, Jessie. The picture of 19th century Aberdeen is vivid and convincing, while John’s strong, calm personality is a good foil for the impetuous determination of Helen Anderson.
This is a story full of realistic characters, whom we grow to care for and a lifestyle full of passion and suffering. After an unpredictable twist, the mystery draws to a satisfactory, logical conclusion, but the relationship of Helen and John is still uncertain, leading us on to the following book. The well-researched background story of this busy port raises questions to be answered about the business practices of William Anderson and his provision of passages to the colonies so I look forward to reading “The Likeness.”
The Figurehead is available at Amazon UK