An extract from 1588: A Calendar of Crime, book two – Whitsunday

Earlier this year we launched a brand new eBook series by Shirley McKay, a quintet of Hew Cullan mysteries entitled 1588: A Calendar of Crime. Last week saw the publication of book two in the series, Whitsunday – a gripping tale of murder, corruption and witchcraft. In this extract from the book, an unfortunate group of teachers and students are horrified to discover the body of a Lord Justice in the grounds of St. Leonard’s college. Before long, Hew Cullan is reluctantly dragged into the ensuing melee of investigation and accusation. But will he get to bottom of this gruesome case in time to save the man wrongfully accused of the murder? There’s only one way to find out…

Whitsunday‘In St Leonard’s College on the South Street of St Andrews, a boy of fourteen lay half the night awake. His name was Robin Grubb, and he was the smallest of the poor scholar clerks, who paid for their degrees by completing menial tasks. It was Robin’s turn on Tuesdays to ring the bell to call the college from its sleep, to light the fires and fetch the water from the well, and introduce his colleagues briskly to a day which they were more inclined to take their time to meet. Robin was a country boy, and natural instinct told him when he ought to rise. And yet, on Tuesday last, his country sense had failed. He had overslept. It was already a quarter to six when the sun had streaked into the dust of his room and spilled on his white face to wake him, and it was six o’clock before the bell was rung. The shame of it engulfed him now, and kept him from his sleep. For when he closed his eyes he could hear again the censure of the college principal, magnificent, benign, and measured in reproof. He had not called Robin to account for his fault, nor shown his disapproval of him in a word or look. Instead, he had preached a sermon against sloth, taking as his theme ‘the sluggard will not plough by reason of the cold, therefore shall he beg in harvest’, and hot blood had flown to fill Robin’s cheeks, as surely as though he had slapped them.

Tonight there was no moon, and Robin could not quell, through the dim dead hours, the fear that the daylight somehow might escape him. He left his bed at last to look out on the darkness where the lanterns hung, hoping for a glimpse of the college clock. He gasped at what he saw, rubbing at his eyes, uncertain for a moment if he was awake.

The wind of Robin’s gasp, blowing through his dreams, caused the fellow student who shared a bed with him to mutter in his sleep, turning on his back and flinging out a foot, beyond the blanket’s grip. It was only this, a foot more stout and ominous than either of his own, that stamped on Robin’s will to rush across and wake him. He gathered up his breeks about his slender hips, and flimsily protected, tiptoed from the room.

Shirley McKay

He paused at the door of the regent, Robert Black, believing it was safest to report to him. Robert was in charge of the third year class. He had been a regent a dozen years or more, without promotion to professor or a living at the kirk, and nothing could surprise him in this weary world. His most withering reproach was a cynical disdain. He was also quite sharp in his wits, once the whiff of a crisis had prised him awake. This had been tested the previous term, when the snuff of a candle, carelessly flicked, had threatened to burn them alive in their beds.

Robin gave a knock, and when there was no answer entered Robert’s room. The master was asleep in a truckle bed. It was rumoured at the college that the masters dreamt in Latin, save for at St Mary’s, where they dreamt in Greek. Robin did not choose to put this to the test, for though the students were constrained to speak Latin at all times, it felt to him a leaden and unwieldy instrument. He could read it well enough – it was for that reason that the minister of his parish kirk had recommended him to the university – but he found it cumbersome and foreign on his tongue. It lacked the sense of urgency that was wanted here – how could he be adamant, fishing for a verb? And so he spoke in Scots. ‘Sir, sir, ye maun wake up now, sir,’ lifting up the sheet to pull at Robert’s shirt. And Robert Black confirmed his intuitions were correct, for he sat bolt upright, wild-eyed and bright as a ghost in a tale, and answered him at once.

‘What is the matter, child?’

Words in no language were adequate enough. ‘Ye maun come an’ look.’ Robin tugged at him. ‘Is that no the gentleman that was here the day?’

The window to the chamber opened to the south. Robert Black looked out. ‘Upon my soul,’ he said, ‘I believe it is.’

‘He is, ah, he is—’

Robert answered gently, ‘I can see that too. You did well to wake me. And I would like to think you have shown no one else.’

‘Wha would I show? They are all asleep.’

‘That is to the good. But you must fetch the principal.’

‘Must I?’ Robin said.

‘Certainly you must. Run and wake him now. I will deal with this.’

The boy set off reluctantly, while the master dressed. And Robert kept an eye on the dancer in the square, who did not seem to know or care that he was watched.

The dance was grave and strange, the dancer with his head inclined, as though he were attuning to a distant sound, too rare and faint a melody to touch the common ear. His trunk and neck were still, the movement of his feet at first quite slow and stately, turned to skip and lilt, to sway upon the ball, and finally to leap, spinning in the air with a speed and grace surprising in a man so fleshly in his form, light upon the toes that did not miss a beat. The slender limbs that bore the full force of his gravity maintained his bulk aloft, and held it proud and stern, as Atlas bore the weight upon him of the world. The dancer entranced, as though he cast a spell. The more, since he was dressed in not a stitch of clothes.

The regent Robert Black made his way outside and approached the dancer, holding out in front of him his folded scholar’s gown. ‘Your honour, are you well? The night air is cold. Will you take my robe?’

The dancer paused his flight, and turned to stare at him. His eyes were dazed and dark. The principal appeared, in his shirt and pantofills, with little Robin Grubb close upon his heels. ‘How now, my lord,’ he said. ‘This will not do at all.’

The dancer held their gaze, and did not seem to hear. He answered not a word, but as his dance was paused, it seemed as though the sound to which he harked had stopped, the music that had worked him coming to a close, and there and then, he dropped, lifeless as a puppet broken at the strings, reflecting in the shimmer of his sightless eyes the sliver of a light that he would not see again.’


Guest blog from Shirley McKay to announce publication of ‘Candlemas’

At the beginning of this month we published a blog to announce the new series by Shirley McKay 1588: A Calendar of Crime featuring Hew Cullan, to celebrate its launch we have a guest blog from the author herself to explain a little more about the series.

1588: A Calendar of Crime:

Shirley McKay1588 is inspired by the old almanacs, with their prognostications, frequently of doom. At a time when all was governed by the elements, this year in particular was a portentous one: a partial eclipse of the sun and two total lunar eclipses, staining the March sky blood red, while the gathering storm of the Spanish Armada, threatening to eclipse the English way of life, cast its long shadow over Scotland too.

Hew CullanFor Hew Cullan and his friends in St Andrews, the high days of the calendar acquire a deadly resonance. Murder will out, ensuring no one here will have a quiet life. There are five separate stories, one for each of the four Scottish term days –Candlemas in February, Whitsunday in May, Lammas in August and November’s Martinmas – with a fifth in December for Yule. At Candlemas, a candlemaker’s lifeblood ebbs away. At a Whitsunday visit, havoc is unleashed, and at the fair at Lammastide, love’s young dream is lost. A Hallowmas ghost reappears, in the course of the Martinmas term, while the keeping of Christmas is doomed, in the last tolling bells of the Yule. No comfort to be found in the rhythms of the year as portents are played out.
Candlemas for blogChronologically, 1588: A Calendar of Crime follows Queen & Country, and familiar characters appear. For Hew Cullan fans, the stories are designed to reward careful reading of the earlier books, but for those new to the series, each one should stand alone, and I hope present a satisfying mystery. I’m hugely excited about the ebook publication of the first story, Candlemas: the ebook format suits the episodic nature of the whole, following the pattern of the quarter days. But I’m excited too about the print edition of the compilation – with a cover promising to be truly beautiful – later on this year. This is a new departure for me, and crafting five complete and self-contained short mysteries, loosely interlinked, is proving both a challenge and a joy.

The eBook is available now form all good online retailers.

Extract: The Great and Good of the Brilliant & Forever

In this extract of The Brilliant & Forever our three intrepid readers are preparing to attend something almost as daunting as the festival itself: the launch party. It’s a place where making a good impression could mean the difference between winning or losing . . .

Brilliant and Forever

The Great and Good of the Brilliant & Forever

The annual Brilliant & Forever launch party had arrived. The evening sky was a deepening bruise; the very air over the island seemed to crackle. I could hear it. Normally the sky doesn’t talk. Yet a palpable static of anticipation and apprehension fizzed and sparked at my ears, hissing words like ‘failure’ and ‘disappointment’ as I cycled around, trying to keep my mind in the moment, rather than projecting into worrisome futures. Maybe the sky was echoing my own inner voice? Maybe that’s outrageous arrogance.

The streets bristled with adrenalised people dashing in and out of houses, cars, shops, shouting platitudes about clothes and haircuts and drinks. Alpacas bounded along in jittery, alert packs. They weren’t allowed to attend the party, but some of them showed support by bearing homemade flags with painted ‘Archie for the B&F’ or ‘Alpacas are Brilliant & Forever’ messages fluttering. Some flags had an image of Archie in his stetson, grasping his spittoon, grinning cheesily.

Back home, I had a long hot soak in the bath and read chapter eighteen of Life and Fate to remind myself to be grateful for the countless opportunities I had and the immeasurable terrors I didn’t.

Macy and Archie came round to my blackhouse at eight. Macy wore a strapless dress; its top half was green, then it fell in black silken pleats from her waist to just above the knees. She’d gathered her hair into an Ecclefechan plait, complete with diamond hair clips. She looked sensational.

‘You look sensational, Macy,’ I said.

‘And you look shit,’ she said, presenting me with a quick hug and a solid good-natured slap across the shoulder.

‘My face is like an early hagiography, or the world’s greatest novel.’


‘Not yet made up.’ She smiled, pleased with herself.

‘You never wear make-up.’

‘I know, just practising some lines for a story.’

‘Very good,’ I said. ‘Hey Archie, you smell like vanilla shower gel. I’m going to eat you.’ I made a play of grabbing him and attempting to bite into his neck. He thrust me away, beating at me with his rhinestone stetson.

Archie is one of those alpacas who showers regularly as a concession to humans, an act some hard-line alpacas shun and politicise, and today he had brushed his coat, too.

He put on and adjusted his stetson, which I knew, and he knew I knew, was his favourite one. ‘Gotta make an effort.’

Maybe I did look shit. I had dressed in a yellow tartan kilt and purple shirt.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Parties aren’t real. They make me uneasy.’

‘Your dress sense makes me uneasy,’ said Archie, trying to lift up my kilt.

‘Oi! Quit it. Let’s just stay in and watch a film instead,’ I said. ‘Who needs parties. The B&F itself is what it’s about, the party’s a superficial event for whitehousers and posers. I want to stay in and watch a film. Yeah, I’m gonna fight for my right not to party.’

‘Is there a John Wayne on?’ said Archie, suddenly alert.

‘No, but there’s a Jeff Bridges. It’s called True Grit. From 2010. Jeff Bridges and his actor pals make a good effort at repeating just about every single quotation from True Grit, in order.’

‘Like a film would have more drama than the B&F launch party! You just have social anxiety, and face it,’ said Macy, who was perfecting her hair in front of and inside a wall mirror ‘you’d be crazy if this society didn’t make you anxious. Ergo, you’re worried because you’re intelligent.’ Macy had a theory that intelligence caused people to be unhappy. I had a theory that any intelligence ascribed to me was exaggerated.

I opened my sporran to see if I’d remembered my eye drops, cash, pen, inhaler and blank page. ‘I just feel it’s weird. Eight o’ clock, Saturday, you are granted permission – no, you are obliged – to be happy. Let’s synchronise watches.’ (Archie didn’t use one, Macy in lieu of a watch had a tattoo of a watch on her wrist; the watch’s face read ‘Now’.) ‘Impossible,’ I said, ‘or is it easy, to synchronise your watch with itself.’ I suddenly panged, wanted to be a watch in sync with itself, just as quickly shook the thought away. ‘But parties – how can people even do that? Just start being happy because someone decrees this is the time to be ecstatic? People don’t get together every Wednesday morning at eleven fifteen to share a few hours of poignant behaviour. We don’t congregate every second Thursday at midday to express our communal outrage.’

‘Maybe we should,’ said Archie.

I paused. ‘Maybe we should,’ I conceded. ‘Maybe there’s a revolution on the horizon.’

‘You’re nervous and havering,’ said Macy. ‘Don’t make me slap you in the face.’

‘I,’ Archie announced, ‘am going to get rip-roaring drunk and persuade everyone to get nekkid and dance the fandango with me. They’ll see how much fun an alpaca can be. I’ll show them Bohemian living, fandangoing alpaca fashion. How’s the fandango go? Such a great word.’

‘I know nothing about it,’ I said. ‘Nothing. So you can’t call me intelligent.’

‘I don’t know the fandango either,’ said Macy, ‘and I’m supersmart. It’s no indicator. Straighten your sporran, mister.’

‘Parties aren’t real,’ I said again.

‘You’d pass up the chance to watch an alpaca do the fandango?’

I sighed. ‘Well, when you put it like that.’

‘Here’s a taster.’ Archie started shaking his hindquarters and scatting random syllables – ‘doo-wa-doo-woo-a-shoobee- doo-shoobee-doo-way-a-bom-ba-shoo-a-weeeee eee-wee-ba-ba-boo’
– and in this fashion he shook and shimmied and sang his way around the room, his rump occasionally crashing a book or a mug to the floor. Macy and I grinned. Archie was as excitable as a kangaroo. It was wonderful to see him in exuberant mood.

At last he stopped and struck an exaggerated, disgruntled pose. He pouted and made his face look as hurt as he could, which didn’t work too well with his perma-smile. ‘The hell you pair laughing at? You got no class. It’s just a jazz thing you don’t get.’

We laughed at our brilliant mad alpaca pal. No humour as endearing as unselfconscious self-deprecation. And no question, I supposed, but that we were going to this party. I tried to don the mental equivalent of a yellow kilt.

Macy sped us to the castle in her battered Datsun, cornering at screeching right angles. The landscape streaked by like we were on a train. Boyracers hurtled past in the other direction, millimetres away, sound systems blaring repetitive beats.