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Monday 3 June 2024

Unsung Heroes of Crime Fiction By Lynne Patrick

 An occasional series which looks at the work of authors whose books qualify as bestsellers, but who still aren’t quite as famous as they deserve to be.

Marsali Taylor

If someone mentions crime fiction set in Britain’s most northerly outpost, the Shetland archipelago, no doubt the first name that comes to mind is Ann Cleeves. But there’s another name that’s been a badly-kept secret for a dozen years or so – kept badly enough that it’s gathered plenty of fans even though it hasn’t made it to TV yet. That name is Marsali Taylor.

Marsali has a huge advantage over Ann: she’s not just a visitor to Shetland, she’s made her home there, and leads a life her protagonist Cass Lynch could relate to – though maybe without so many dead bodies to trip over and their killers to unearth. And like Cass, Marsali is a keen sailor and has her own yacht; also like Cass, she has made longer voyages as a trainee on a longship.   

Cass is a native Shetlander who ran away from the islands as a teenager, but has been drawn back. Marsali’s own story is almost the direct opposite. She spent her childhood and early life near Edinburgh, trained as a teacher, moved to Shetland because she was offered a job – and several decades and a whole book series later, she’s still there, woven into the fabric of the islands as if she was as native a Shetlander as her protagonist.

It was the teaching that led her into writing; as drama coach in one of the islands’ primary schools, she wrote numerous plays and pantomimes for pupils throughout the age range. There were plays for the secondary students too, including drama festival entries, and later more plays for adults. Now mostly retired from teaching, she is still closely involved in island drama. Journalism is another string to her bow; her ongoing  column in Practical Boat Owner gets plenty of feedback, and features on island life and history also appear regularly. And as if that wasn’t enough to fill one lifetime, she’s been learning to play the flute and to speak Norwegian!

And now, of course, there’s the Cass Lynch series. Marsali says herself that she loves a puzzle, and she sets a pretty tricky one for Cass to solve in each of the books – a dozen so far, and counting. There’s plenty for sailing enthusiasts to enjoy as well, not only when Cass takes her yacht Karima out, but also on her beloved longship Sørlandet, where several of her adventures take place. Each novel is a self-contained mystery, so new readers can come in at any point, but as is often the case with a series, watching the backstory develop adds an extra  dimension for regular fans. Cass’s career aboard the Sørlandet progresses from one book to another. And there’s her burgeoning romance with DI Gavin Macrae, who always seems to be on hand when he’s needed, and gives rise to a sometimes tense will-they-won’t-they tug-of-war between sailing and settling down to island life.

Everyday life in Shetland, its festivals, shows, village events and problems, forms a rich background to the mysteries, all the more so because Marsali Taylor herself is so much a part of it all. And the bleakly beautiful scenery, the sea in all its guises and each island’s unique character, all of which Marsali knows like her own front doorstep, provide a wide variety of settings and locations. There are sixteen inhabited islands in Shetland, and Cass Lynch has been involved in murders on about half of them so far. In fact, with a whole archipelago to explore, she has no need to stray anywhere else. Not that that stops her; the high seas on the Sørlandet, and the Scottish Highlands, visiting the home of Gavin Macrae, are the settings for several of her adventures.

With all this and plenty more to delve into, the biggest mystery of all is why Marsali Taylor isn’t at least as famous as her fellow Shetland mystery author. Such is the power of the silver screen . But maybe the Cass Lynch series is like one of those beautiful unspoiled beaches we hope no one else will discover – and maybe some day, everyone will. Marsali is already famous in Shetland; it’s time the rest of the world had a share.

Lynne Patrick 

The Cass Lynch series in order:

Death on a Longship (also published as
Death on a Shetland Longship)

The Trowie Mound Murders (also published as
Buried in a Shetland Tomb)

A Handful of Ash
(also published as The Shetland Night Killings)

The Body in the Bracken
(also published as Grave of a Shetland Sailor)

Ghosts of the Vikings
(also published as The Shetland Poisonings)

Death in Shetland Waters

Death on a Shetland Isle

Death from a Shetland Cliff

The Shetland Sea Murders

A Shetland Winter Mystery

Death in a Shetland Lane  

Death at a Shetland Festival

 Marsali has also written a number of limited-edition non-fiction books based on real-life people from history. Check out her website for more information. 

1 comment:

  1. The books are fantastic - Shetland itself is the heroine alongside Cass. Landscape and seascape descriptions are beautiful