|CRUCIBLE OF SECRETS
Aberdeen, 1631. Alexander Seaton, lecturer and regent of Marischal College, stumbles upon the dead body of his friend, the university’s librarian, and is asked by the principal to look into the man’s life with an eye to protecting the college’s interests. Convinced that his friend has been murdered because of something he knows – or something that he has found in one of the books recently gifted to the library – Seaton begins his investigation. As he digs, he uncovers links to alchemy, Rosicrucians and freemasons and, when a second man dies, Seaton discovers that he may not know his friends as well as he thought.
This is Scotland, post-Reformation and pre-Enlightenment. Religion plays a huge part in peoples’ everyday lives and the beginnings of modern science are still a handful of decades away. MacLean’s sense of this period is impeccable; it should be: she has a PhD in history, specialising in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Scotland. So we find people dabbling in alchemy in search of the Philosopher’s Stone and religious fanatics – the wonderful character of Matthew Jack – decrying their unnatural and godless practices.
Crucible of Secrets is Shona MacLean’s third novel, all of which feature Alexander Seaton. Seaton is a complex character with an eventful history – much of which seems to play out in the pages of the previous volumes in the series – and more than a touch of insecurity, especially where his relationship with his wife is concerned. The city of Aberdeen is vividly-imagined, and the division between college and city provides the perfect excuse for Seaton’s role of amateur sleuth. The novel starts slowly, despite a gruesome discovery in the first handful of pages, and doesn’t really find its stride until around the halfway mark. There is too much melodrama in the first half, too many instances of Seaton mooning over his wife’s infidelities, real or imagined. And while this plays an important part later in the story, it could have been trimmed down considerably without any loss of impact.
Once the story hits its stride, though, it becomes a hard book to fault, and any minor quibbles about the first half are quashed by admiration of a master plotter at the height of her game. In much the same way that the end of The Sixth Sense makes you question your ability to follow a simple plot and read all the signs that are in plain view, so will the denouement of Crucible of Secrets leave you in awe of MacLean’s ability to pull the wool over your eyes and keep you guessing until the very end.
MacLean’s novels have drawn favourable comparison with C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels. On the strength of Crucible of Secrets it’s not difficult to see why. Expect a slow first half, but your patience will be well rewarded if you stick with it. It may be worth reading the previous books in the series before starting on this one, but the book works as an excellent standalone novel should you wish to start here – there is enough backstory included on the characters that you won’t be lost by anything that is said or done (I can personally vouch for this, as Crucible of Secrets is the first of MacLean’s books that I have read). If you like historical fiction in the vein of Sansom or Eco, or if you like a good, challenging mystery, then this is definitely the book for you.