Thunder Bay, by Douglas Skelton

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

The island where Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay is set is the kind of place that can’t help but infuriate and enchant its inhabitants. Stoirm, the fictional Scottish coastal island, is a place where people have long memories and an unshakable need to keep their families’ secrets. It would be a tough nut to crack for even a seasoned reporter. Rebecca Connolly, one of the few journalists for a weekly paper, only has a tenuous family connection of her own as an in with the people of Stoirm. Thankfully, this connection is shored up by her own determination and the fact that secrets, no matter tightly held, have a way of coming out eventually.

Thunder Bay kicks off with information that wouldn’t really be news in a big city. On Stoirm, word that a man widely believed to be a murderer is returning sets all kinds of feathers to ruffling. The only reason that Roddie Drummond is not in prison is that he was given a “not proven” verdict, a rare outcome only seen in Scottish courts. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict Roddie of the murder of his girlfriend. On the other hand, there’s enough doubt that the jury couldn’t declare him innocent. Rebecca tries to argue her way to the island, talking up all the reasons why the editor of her paper should send her to write up the story, but her boss says no. Rebecca goes anyway, where she ruffles a lot of feathers herself as she starts asking questions of various islanders.

As the novel progresses, we start to piece things together as Rebecca collects dribs and drabs of information from people who’ve kept their mouths shut for fifteen years. We also get glimpses of events from the perspective of Roddie and, more troubling, a woman who is viciously abused by her husband. These three narratives only come together towards the end of Thunder Bay, when all the wheels come off. Poor Rebecca, who only went to the island with a vague plan to become a journalist-who-digs-and-tells-the-truth, finds herself in the middle of violent men, scheming lairds, guilt stricken people with too many secrets, and the alternately flexible and rigid codes of conduct of the people of Stoirm.

Thunder Bay turned out to be a surprisingly gripping read. I had no idea where things were going to end up, even though the people Rebecca interviews give up useful pieces of information left and right. Skelton’s characters kept bucking expectations as they tried to stick to Stoirm’s “ethical” code. They are far from the polite (mostly) suspects that Poirot had to tangle with in his cases. Rebecca is lucky she didn’t get caught in the crossfire. Readers looking for something out of the ordinary and atmospheric might like this one.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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