Lillian Stewart Carl (Guest Blogger)
When I began a new mystery series several years ago, I never thought of setting it anywhere besides Scotland.
The country is less awash with rain than with blood. For a historian like myself—and like my heroine, Jean Fairbairn—historical MacGuffins line the roads like thistles. I use the word “MacGuffin” not only to mean the object that instigates the story and is relevant to its solution, but because of its Scottish “mac” prefix, meaning “son of”. “Sonofaguffin” makes a great swear word, doesn’t it?
The Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series is one of my usual cross-genre blends, part-paranormal, part-romance, mostly mystery. I’ve subtitled it, “Scotland’s finest and America’s exile on the trail of all-too-living legends.” In other words, my Caledonian cop-cum-security chief and my expatriate history professor-cum-journalist find themselves solving murders motivated by a historical or legendary object: the MacGuffin.
In The Secret Portrait, an old man asks Jean’s help taking a gold coin of Louis XIV to the Museum of Scotland. (Her friends Michael and Rebecca Campbell-Reid, from my earlier Ashes to Ashes series, work there.) Jean suspects that the coin comes from the long-lost hoard of Bonnie Prince Charlie, a.k.a. Charles Edward Stewart, the Young Pretender, who was as feckless in real life as he is romantic in legend. The gilt (and guilt) of that legend as well as the glitter of gold leads to murder—and to the first meeting of Jean and Alasdair Cameron.
In The Murder Hole, Jean travels to Loch Ness to write about a stone carved by the cryptic ancient Picts, as well as to interview an American businessman intent on proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster. Nessie, an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in the Scottish tourist industry—and the MacGuffin of more than my tale—is choice fodder for Great Scot, Jean’s history and tourism magazine. Until the question of Nessie’s existence leads to murder. Alasdair Cameron is on the case. And on Jean’s nerves again, not altogether unpleasantly.
“Do you believe Nessie exists?” Jean asks him.
“I’m after keeping my fantasy compartmented,” he replies.
But as a detective, his business hinges on fantasy just as much as Jean’s does. For it doesn’t matter whether what someone believes is true, as long as they’re willing to act on those beliefs.
In The Burning Glass, Jean and Alasdair are a couple, not a thistle and a rose but two thistles. They travel to the Scottish borders to keep an eye on a ruined chapel. I’d originally intended to use Rosslyn Chapel as the MacGuffin—yes, the Rosslyn Chapel outside Edinburgh, the one teeming with intricate stonecarvings and even more intricate legends. But before I could start my own story, Rosslyn was featured in The Da Vinci Code. (Sonofaguffin!)So with the stroke of a pixel, I created Ferniebank, built by the same hands as Rosslyn.
In The Burning Glass, tourists overflow Rosslyn and descend upon Ferniebank, the owner plans its conversion to a New Age spa, and what looks like a simple case of myth-mongering becomes a mad mouse ride through historical fantasy.
“There’s nothing wrong with myth,” Jean insists, while Alasdair retorts, “The danger comes in hiding from the fact that they are myths.”
My MacGuffins are not just objects of memory and desire—manuscripts, jewelry, bones—but legends as well. They proliferate, they mutate, and then they kill. For it doesn’t matter what drives the traffic in myths. It’s a lucrative business, and greed is a time-honored motive. Just ask the man with Prince Charlie’s Louis d’Or and a sense of honor much more finely-honed than the prince’s. Just ask the man chasing a crypto-zoological chimera like Nessie as well as his own ego. Just ask the people of the village that suffers a string of mysterious deaths because one clever author turned several time-tattered tales into a bestseller.
A scene in The Secret Portrait takes place at the Clan Cameron Museum in the Western Highlands. Alasdair, as a card-carrying member of clan Cameron, could tell you that the old Cameron war cry was a promise to feed their enemies to dogs: “Sons of the hounds, come here and get flesh!” Maybe the cry of the Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series should be, “Sons of the guffins, come here and get story!”