A frenzied hunt across the Scottish Highlands for a mythic artefact. A secret passed down the ages from keeper to keeper. Runes and cryptic messages to decipher, hoodlums to dodge, elderly historians to be consulted shortly before their violent deaths... At first glance Andrew Greig's new novel seems like a home-grown, rather indignant riposte to The Da Vinci Code.
And why not? After all, Scotland has a perfectly good conspiracy of its own running back through its history: the whereabouts and true identity of the Stone of Scone, aka the Crowning Stone, appropriated by Edward I during his Scottish wars in 1296, then stolen from Westminster Abbey in 1950 by a gang of students. Only even that – so the legends suggest – was not the real stone, which was removed before the English king could get his dirty hands on it.
Greig's heroine, carried over from his earlier novel The Return of John MacNab, is Kirsty Fowler, a troubled ex-lawyer and sometime journalist with an eye for trouble. She stumbles on the story when she is given a Moon Ring by a dying acquaintance, who was involved in the 1950 disappearance and is now in need of someone to hand his secret on to.
The ring is one of three originally owned by the Moon Runners, the men who removed the real Stone before Edward could get it. Unite the runes inscribed on the mountings, and you shall find the Stone, but only if you get there before the knife-wielding psychopath who has suddenly sprung up, with a bevy of heavies at his disposal.
With her own life at risk, Kirsty calls together the old gang from The Return of John MacNab, and the chase really starts. There's a memorable jaunt to Norway, where they find some answers and more dangers among the buskers and street performers of Oslo.
There are points in all this where it seems as if Greig is trying to keep too many balls in the air. He can't introduce a character without wanting to give you five minutes inside their head. But where the first half is sometimes patchily written, the novel accelerates as it steadies its cast list and moves towards its final showdown, memorably set at Dunstaffnage Castle, on the west coast near Oban, "sitting high on its rock, dark against the failing light".
To judge from the cover design, this is being marketed as any old run-of-the-mill thriller, but really the novel's truest forebears are the full-blooded adventures of John Buchan. The knife-wielding villain is even described as "the man who called himself Adamson", which could be straight from the pages of The Thirty-Nine Steps.
By the end of the book, you'll be in no doubt that the author is the same man who has five books of poetry to his name, plus two on mountaineering, and that he's a proud Scot. I'm not, but the ending had me pretty much in tears all the same. This is a thriller with heart and soul.Reuse content