Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Precious Vanishings

A Review by Valerie Beattie

Down to the Sea
Sue Lawrence
Contraband (2018)
Claire MacLeary
Contraband (2019)

Two recent Contraband publications – Sue Lawrence’s novel Down To The Sea and Claire MacLeary’s Runaway – aim to thrill readers with a focus on, respectively, a modern-day gothic tale of treachery and Aberdeen’s answer to Cagney and Lacey.

Down To The Sea’s cover page précis – “When secrets from the past won’t stay hidden” – signals its focus on unsettling information waiting in the wings, and Lawrence follows through with secrets aplenty linked to guarded and secluded homes and lives, and an ill-gotten, highly valuable diamond. A key structural feature of the novel is the use of the emotions of fear and terror intrinsic to dark revelations, and its gothic dynamic is heralded by the Prologue’s setting in a timeless, placeless world of ghostly body parts operating with murderous intent. Deferring the Prologue’s action by a knock on the door (one senses echoes of Macbeth and De La Mere’s The Traveller), Lawrence postpones readers’ access to the fate and identity of both the slight figure in the bed and the holder of the blade as we are transported to 1981. Here, a young couple’s purchase of an old mansion in Newhaven for the purpose of transforming it into a care home ignites a series of coincidences, tensions and historical synergies between Wardie House and Wardie House Lodge in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Already laden with enough “past” of their own, the irony of taking on so much of it in relation to Wardie House and its prospective inhabitants is lost on Rona and Craig. Moreover, their preoccupations and lack of time enable the mysterious Martha to inveigle her way into their lives and home with sinister repercussions. As Lawrence positions the 19th and 20th century narratives sequentially, readers’ comprehension of the full import of events in an old poorhouse and – to borrow Freud – the return of the repressed, is managed with suspenseful precision as the novel moves through the uncanny ebb and flow of history’s erosion into the present.

Lawrence’s character construction is detailed and sympathetic in relation to her key 19th century characters: the young, innocent, kindly Jessie, labelled a “Winzie” and said to bring a curse with her; Effie, traumatised by the death of her baby; and Bella, Effie’s brutal sister, whose determination to find the diamond taints all around her. Similarly in the 20th century, the depiction of Rona and Craig’s relationship grows in time with each challenge they face, and the contrast between their dearth of historical information and the care home’s inhabitants’ interest in it brings them closer together, nourishing an atmosphere of mutual help and understanding in Wardie House.

The denouement is deftly managed, and justice plays its part in surprising ways. Overall, Down To The Sea is a gripping tale that brings its historical strands together with satisfying narrative twists and turns right to the end.  

Claire MacLeary’s Runaway focuses on the apparently motiveless disappearance of a wife and mother. Whilst given a name – Debbie Milne – her invisibility as an individual extends through her roles as wife and mother to her perplexing disappearance. Labelled a “misper”, MacLeary’s representation of the case serves in part as a vehicle to highlight police prejudice and incompetence, with Debbie’s disappearance seeming more an inconvenience than a tragedy.

Enter “Big” Wilma Harcus and Maggie Laird, neighbours, wives and co-partners in a failing detective agency. Runaway is MacLeary’s third novel featuring the Harcus and Laird pairing, and the focus on the challenges and complexities of the women’s lives along with their (sometimes dubious) talent for crime-solving has affinities with the spirit of the iconic Cagney and Lacey television series of the 1980s. Just as its shining light was the way the 14th Precinct in Manhattan was a vehicle for the show’s focus on the women themselves, Runaway’s strength resides in its characterisation of Maggie and Wilma battling life in Aberdeen during the major downturn in the oil industry whilst searching for the ghostly Debbie. As they extend their search, Aberdeen’s bleakness is heightened by the pair’s discovery of people trafficking and money laundering. However, rather than allow such discoveries to phase or deter them, they meet increasing dangers head on, remaining believable as characters all the while. The novel is convincing in its depiction of the underbelly of modern cities, particularly during times of lean economic productivity, and the search for Debbie is action-packed and believable.

Runaway’s depiction of the Milne marriage and its consequences – perfect from the outside, decidedly less so as lived on a day-to-day basis in line with predominant, ideologically-sanctioned values – reveals a form of institution too difficult for some to bear. And, with Maggie and Wilma toasting their continued partnership, readers can look forward to more spirited involvements in the darker side of Scottish life determinedly driven by two independent-minded women.