In 1840’s Aberdeen, Bessie Rennie, on the lookout for any pickings to be made from flotsam, finds Jimmie Crombie’s body above the high tide mark on the beach. She fetches John Grant, skilled carver of figureheads and amateur sleuth. He notices things about the corpse which make him believe the death was no accident. Cynical about the skills of the constabulary, he makes it his business to find out how Jimmie died.
The figurehead of the title establishes a relationship between Grant and the Anderson family, when local shipping tycoon William Anderson commissions a figurehead for his new ship, which the late Jimmie Crombie was to have finished building. Gradually, the reader discovers that Jimmie was not a nice man. Slowly, Grant unravels clues that increasingly reveal a nasty individual. Many people would have wished him dead.
The reader might be forgiven for thinking that this book is a simple murder mystery. And in a way it is. The character of Jimmie Crombie and the manner of his death is the thread that weaves its way throughout the narrative, the one thing that brings together the very different people in this tale. And yet the story is far more than a simple whodunit. Aberdeen in the 1840’s was a bustling, thriving port with the many layers of society which make up such a place. John Anderson and his family are in the high end of town, above the stink of the harbour. Bessie is a beggar, a scrounger who lives on the edges. As the wife of a ship builder, Jessie Crombie, Jimmie’s widow, occupies the middle ground and yet her living circumstances are so very far less than that of the privileged Andersons, or even of skilled tradesman John Grant.
For me this is one of the beauties of this fine work. It paints a picture of the past, of the men and women who lived in these times. In particular Kirton shows the roles of women; how (depending on their place in society) they were used, abused, or placed on pedestals as ornaments. They and their men are placed in their settings, lovingly described. Here, you can find out how the sails of a ship were cut, how the ropes were made, how the planks of the hull were caulked, all the while smelling the stench of fish and tar and urine and tobacco. Contrast that to the joint of beef with wine sauce served to Mister Anderson and his family at dinner. We learn, too, that privilege is earned. William Anderson has his own secrets that he is unwilling to share with even his own.
The lilting accents of Scotland are there in the dialogue, hinted at rather than served with a shovel.
The reader is drawn into these people’s lives, joining John Grant as he struggles with his deepening regard for Helen Anderson while he wades through opposition to find out who killed Jimmie. Helen is strongly drawn, an only child wanting to do more than be married off, intelligent and wilful and only too aware of her rank and privilege.
Kirton resolves Jimmie Crombie’s death in a thoroughly satisfying way, having provided the reader with all the evidence to come to his own conclusion. I really enjoyed the book and I’m happy to recommend it.
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