- Ursula Le Guin
I read a book about the Shetland Islands quite a few years back, in the ‘80s. I’m interested in the old, remote Viking outposts, and Shetland seemed like the kind of end-of-the world place where a loner like me would be right at home. To judge by Death on a Longship, things have changed since then, mostly because of North Sea oil. The islands are rich now, their inhabitants snug in new houses, with satellite TV and the internet.
The appeal of a story about a murder on a replica Viking ship, against a Shetland backdrop, was irresistible to me, in spite of my old prejudices against women writers (their male characters are often pretty weak), and the fact that this is a story about a woman in a traditional male job – in this case skipper of the Viking ship.
But I was pleasantly surprised. Death On a Longship was a very engaging mystery story, not top drawer but extremely good.
Cass Lynch is the main character and narrator. A native of Shetland, she defied the wishes of her businessman father and (French) opera singer mother to become a sailor. The death of her lover in an accident at sea some years back left her traumatized, but she’s now landed the great opportunity of her life. An American film company wants to make a movie about Gudrid the Far-traveled, an Icelandic saga heroine, in Shetland, and she’s landed the job of captaining the ship. It’s the first time she’s been back in Shetland since she ran away to sea, and there’s some awkwardness in reacquainting herself with old friends, and with her father, who is seeing a young American woman from the film company (her mother returned to France years ago).
Things seem to be going pretty well, until Cass goes aboard the Viking ship at her berth one night and finds one of the film people murdered. Although a very competent Scottish detective comes to investigate (and Cass is definitely a suspect), Cass’ intimate knowledge of the place and of the sea puts her in a position to follow some lines of inquiry of her own, putting her life in danger.
I was pleased with Cass, who was competent and brave without being an obnoxious feminist. She makes no secret of the importance of her Catholic faith in her life, and expresses horror over the idea of abortion. Environmental questions cluster at the center of the story, but it’s a conflict between two sides of the “Green” movement – the fight between wind power people and habitat preservationists.
Author Taylor has slipped up on her Viking research at a couple of points. She thinks that a replica of a Viking merchant ship could be an exact replica of the Gokstad ship, which is like saying a replica of a pickup truck can be an exact copy of a sports car. She also thinks Viking merchant ships had wooden cabins in the stern, which they did not. And she gives the character of Gudrid a velvet dress, which I don’t think any costumer with any interest in authenticity would do.
Also I found the many time shifts in the narrative confusing at times.
But taken all in all, Death on a Longship was a very entertaining read, set in a fascinating part of the world. Recommended. Minor cautions for the usual stuff, but nothing extreme.