Andrew Nicoll is well-known for his novels If You’re Reading This I’m Already Dead and The Good Mayor, the latter of which won the Saltire Prize for the First Book of the Year in 2009. His latest book is a murder mystery titled The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne. The cover, comprising the elegantly dressed arm and torso of a woman, presumably Miss Milne, placed on a grand bannister of a staircase, gives the impression of wealth and romance. However, the story inside is unexpectedly gritty, a tension-filled story of murder and secrets.
Lines such as “The top of her skull was dented out of shape, just a mass of matted hair and black blood, and her face bruised and swollen and grey-green and yellow, fishy coloured” perhaps give some flavour of the gritty detail and tone. The novel is based on a real, unsolved case, which Nicoll revisits to create the compelling story of Jean Milne and the local Police Force’s passionate, yet often inadequate, attempts to solve the case. In doing so, he comes up with an inventive and climactic conclusion which is impossible to see coming. He keeps the reader guessing the whole way through; wrongly accused men, corrupted witnesses and shoddy police work all stand in the way of finding out what really happened. The secrets surrounding Jean whilst she was alive add an extra layer of mystery, and descriptions of her provide a colourful contrast to the otherwise deliberately mundane pool of characters. Nicoll also includes letters, press releases and articles – all which enrich the reader’s experience and involvement.
The setting is Broughty Ferry in 1912. Nicoll magnificently captures the small-town atmosphere, which is homely and claustrophobic all at once. His descriptions throughout are sensual and atmospheric: “I heard the ringing of the rails and the great yellow lamp of the tramcar appeared through the mist, glowing like a monstrous eye.” The era is also realistically conveyed throughout the novel, making the attitudes and actions of the characters believable. Coming from Dundee, the places mentioned in the novel were familiar to me. This familiarity heightened the tension and shock factor of the murder. However, I believe Nicoll manages to portray Broughty Ferry and Dundee during the time of the industrial revolution well enough that even someone unfamiliar with the area could harbour a strong sense of setting.
The narrator, a policeman named John Fraser, is based on a real detective and tells the story in retrospective first person. The register of the novel is formal and detailed, with sprinklings of Scottish dialect: “Ah was jist past the wee gate intae thon big hoose…” These clashes of tone represent the dramatic class structure, a central theme. Nicoll projects the attitudes of the people at the time, interweaving larger themes such as the divisions of class, prejudice against outsiders, religious views and a pre-war mentality, into the already rich plot. The result is an inviting backdrop for scandal, gossip and corruption. However, I sometimes lost sense of the narrator, who was often absent from the action, providing inconsistencies which are hard to ignore. This is not necessarily a criticism as it led me to question my trust for the narrator, not a bad thing in a novel where suspicions and uncertainty make you want to keep reading. The main issue I had was that although Jean’s life – and indeed, death, – were the subject matter of the book, there seemed to be more of a focus on the police force and their conflicting attitudes. Large chunks of the book barely mention Jean and it is only the last few chapters which start to address her ‘secret life’. However, this did not detract much from my enjoyment of the novel. Nicoll presents us with a true murder mystery – heightened by the spot-on setting, well-rounded characters and shocking twist in the tail.