‘The Foot of the Walk Murders’, by Simpson Grears

Fresh from the highly respected publishing house Rymour comes a collection of classic Golden Age detective stories which was longlisted by for the CWA Short Story Dagger Award. Simpson Grears’ creation, the former archivist and local historian Hamish McDavitt, is an informal consultant for Detective Inspector Nigel Stonelaw of the Edinburgh and Lothian police and offers his services and insights into the criminal mind in return for a glass of his favourite whisky. With a Dickensian flourish of nominative determinism, DI Stonelaw is a man of principle, a Yorkshire man moved to Edinburgh, destined to uphold the letter of the legal principle and unwilling to be cowed or compromised in his endeavours. His superior, Chief Superintendent Robert Ord, with his ‘walrus moustache and his habit of puffing furiously on a reeking pipe’ has stepped straight out of the Golden Age with the furrowed brow and blunt demeanour that accompanies such personal presentation. 

Hamish, a doyen of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, features prominently in the 16 short stories which comprise this collection and it is no understatement to say that each are as delightfully fiendish in their conundrum, deft in their delivery and illuminating in their execution. 

‘Through a Glass Darkly’ is the first short and focuses on the murder of James Semple, assistant keeper of the oriental flora at the Royal Botanic Garden. Semple passes away in the Northern Bar following three celebratory pints of beer after the completion of a display. There are multiple suspects, professional jealousies, a romantic interest and a poison from the far east in play, not to mention the wonderfully titled Inspector Rubrik. 

Among the ghosts and gallows, contraband and criminals, there are numerous light touches where the investigative qualities of the detective and archivist turn their attention to activities which are more ludic and playful – childish mischief as opposed to the descent into recidivism. ‘A Potato Riddle’ and ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ are striking in that they feature innocent actions or sleight of hand at the root of the problems and yet the clues still need to be written and the puzzles solved. 

A particular favourite which Grears manages to deliver with aplomb, despite at various points my readerly curiosity questioning just where the plot was heading, is ‘The Black Redeemer’ which has another game of great complexity and strategy at its heart – chess. In this case it features the second oldest club in world – Edinburgh, founded in 1822 – along with references to computational science, classical music and the games of Paul Keres. The erudition that author brings to the pages and used to illuminate the puzzles and solutions often has the reader scrambling for a reference book or emitting a loud groan acknowledging that they too have been outwitted in their efforts to solve the problem before Hamish McDavitt himself.  

‘A Maritime Mystery’ is something of a departure from the usual style and structure that Grears uses. The conceit remains the same – a mysterious happening, in this case on board a ship bringing goods into the port of Leith – but the execution does not feel as smooth as others in this collection and there is a sensation of it being forced and slightly incongruous. It may be that there are clues or nuances that I missed and such accusations are egregious at best, demonstrating readerly ignorance at worst and although this feels like the weakest part it should be said that this is not a criticism – the collection as a whole is exemplary and testament to the talent of Simpson Grears. 

Each tale takes the reader on a journey throughout Edinburgh and its arcane and archaic streets, the notable sights and the ephemera, piecing together cases and the city through the the veritable chronicler and flaneur, McDavitt. Even taking away the aspects of detective fiction this could easily act as a formidable compendium or guide for the visitor to the city if they wish to blend the more well-trodden paths with those parts of the city which are firmly off the beaten track. Grears’s ear for dialogue, eye for detail and aptitude for assimilating history and atmosphere makes this a delightful set of vignettes and I look forward to reading the next feature from a novelist who is most certainly worth returning to in future. 

To offer a consideration of every story in the collection is not only beyond the remit of this review but also defeats the object for the reader whose appetite should be whetted at the prospect of such a literary delectation ahead of them. I devoured this in one sitting, finishing aptly enough in the late afternoon sun of my local pub with a malt whisky on the side and I would urge readers to aim for the same outcome. 

The Foot of the Walk Murders is published by Rymour Books

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