Inspector Adolphus McGray and his long-suffering lieutenant, Inspector Ian Frey, venture forth from Victorian Edinburgh (A Mask of Shadows, 2018, etc.) to the northern reaches of Scotland to confront all manner of criminal and possibly supernatural atrocities.
Sixteen years after he got his brother’s housekeeper, Millie Fletcher, in the family way and then forced her to give up the baby lest a shadow fall over the lordly Kolomans, Maximilian Koloman has been struck by a deathbed change of heart. He’s begged his relatives to acknowledge Benjamin Smith, who has no idea who his parents are, and to treat him as Maximilian's heir. But not everyone welcomes Benjamin with open arms. Someone’s tossed through Millie’s window a brick with a note reading, “KEEP YOUR BASTARD AWAY OR I SHALL KILL HIM.” Frightened, Millie asks McGray for his help and protection. It’s a lot to ask, but she offers something potentially wonderful in return: a draft from the fabled waters of an island spring in Loch Maree that just might be able to cure McGray’s sister, Pansy, who hacked her parents to death and lopped off her brother’s ring finger, giving him the nickname “Nine-Nails.” Lacking McGray’s motivation for the desolate trip, Frey cheers himself by bringing along his uncle, Maurice Plantard, whose instantaneous mutual antagonism with McGray threatens to overwhelm the criminal plot. And that’s a lot to overwhelm, for even as the characters are congratulating themselves that no one’s been killed, Benjamin’s longtime guardian is murdered, and others will follow. Juniper Island, home to that healing spring, is also host to the Nellys family, whose head may have been miraculously cured already, and perhaps a flock of vampire bats as well. In fact, the horrors that swirl around the Koloman family escalate so dramatically that eventually a magnanimous criminal tells a prospective target: “I’ll be kind to you. You shall be the first victim, so that you won’t have to witness all of tonight’s unavoidable gore.” Talk about kind.
Steeped in history, myth, and medical lore, murky as the deepest loch, miles from the remotest civilizing forces, this provides all the thrills of an amusement-park concession for grown-ups who want to test their limits.