Catriona McPherson is a born storyteller. She can no sooner stop from spellbinding readers with her writing than she can from entertaining them when she speaks. I've often wondered if she was born with a story flying out of her mouth instead of a cry. She creates the tales that grip a reader and haunt their dreams. Could a story be any better than that? Of course not. McPherson's latest thriller, Strangers at the Gate, is as chilling as the cold, wet weather that blows through the hollow of its Scottish setting. This is the magic of a Scottish author writing about the harsh, beautiful country that is itself a character of unsettling presence, a character to love, but to respect for its fierceness and its peril.
Finn and Paddy have come to the small village of Simmerton from the large, busy city of Edinburgh after accepting what appear to be perfect jobs, their dreams coming true before Finn ever imagined they would. It's a big change, but when Paddy had told her of the offer for him to become partner in a law firm, a partner before he was 40, and shortly after that, she was offered a full-time position as deacon the local Church of Scotland there, Finn knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The proverbial ship had come in, and moving to Simmerton was the only logical decision, especially with the offer of the rent-free gate house on Paddy's boss' estate for them to live in. It was a falling into place like few others. The name of the estate, Widdershins, did give Finn pause to wonder, as it was an unlucky name, and the closeness of the mountains and trees crowding into the valley and blocking out the sun produced a rather an ominous feeling, but the opportunities overshadowed the, well, shadows.
Within days of moving into the gate house, Finn and Paddy are invited to dinner by Lovatt Dudgeon, Paddy's boss, and Lovatt's wife Tuft at their house up the drive. The Dudgeons live in the dowager house, as the main estate house was consumed by fire many years prior. After a rather harrowing walk for Finn down the drive, with strange noises that Paddy convinces her are innocuous country reverberations, Finn is delighted that Tuft is such a breath of fresh air. Tuft makes Finn feel like Simmerton is going to indeed be a "golden" place. But, Finn's optimism is short-lived when she discovers she has forgotten her hand bag while walking back home, and she and Paddy return to the Dudgeon's house to retrieve it. Arriving back at the Dudgeon's, Finn and Paddy find the door open, so they go into the house to check things out, and what they find is a brutal murder. No one has seen them come in, so instead of calling the police, Paddy convinces Finn to return to their gate house, where he will explain why they can't call the police, something from his past that he doesn’t want scrutinized. So, they sit on their gruesome discovery and wait for someone else to come forward. Going about their days, trying to act normal, is a tall order for Paddy and Finn, as they wait for murder to be announced Meeting their nearby neighbors brings only more strangeness into their lives, and everyone seems to have a personal agenda and secrets that compound the suspense. I was wrong more than once in thinking I'd figured out what was and had happened, and I couldn't be more pleased to have been kept guessing.
Strangers at the Gate has quickly become one of my favorite suspense thrillers. No one does atmosphere better than Catriona McPherson. As Finn describes the saturation of her very being with the rain, I felt that same saturation in the atmosphere of the story. Characters are always a strong point of this author, too, and Finn is a deacon only Catriona McPherson could create. While she is not your mother's deacon, Finn is, with her full-spirited, smart, witty, and resourceful personality, still a disciple of the church and what is right and good. In the end, she must call upon all her strengths to survive both the ghosts from the past and the evil in the present. The plot of this tale is complex, delightfully twisty, but never unfairly.
Strangers at the Gate is my #1 recommendation for a Halloween mystery/thriller read, but it is a great read at any time. It is one of my favorite reads this year, and I hope to reread it next Halloween. Truth be told, I've already reread the first thirty pages of it, and I can tell you that in rereading it, the cleverness of Catriona McPherson's writing will pop out at you all over again in those carefully chosen words, which we call clues.
I was fortunate to receive an advanced reader's copy from the author, and I am giving my honest, gobsmacked reaction and review to this book.