Literature and landscape: SG MacLean's historical crime novel Destroying Angel and its setting
Historical crime specialist SG MacLean has two highly-regarded series to her name: the Alexander Seaton books set in Stuart Scotland and Damian Seeker set in the rule of Cromwell after the English Civil War.
Shona was born in Inverness and grew up with her four siblings in various small hotels run by her parents around the Scottish Highlands. She lives with her husband and four children in the Scottish Highlands.
The writer Alistair MacLean was her uncle.
Setting plays an essential role in all her novels. In the Destroying Angel - one of the Seeker series - she takes the reader deep into the heart of 17th century York, neighbouring villages and the North York Moors.
The landscape is like her hero - stony, craggy, handsome and, in places, soft at heart as the bogs hidden in the gritty landscape.
Seeker is an intelligencer and enforcer who works for Cromwell and the Destroying Angel is the third in a series of five and the first set outside of London.
His job is to seek out and quash any and all plots and plans to bring back royal rule - in the form of Charles II - to England and to send conspirators and traitors to the Tower and Tyburn.
“After two books set in London, I felt I needed to move the character and series to a rural setting, to have a closer look at how the social restrictions of Cromwell’s England might play out in a small community,” said Shona, encouraged by her publisher to just add initials to her Christian names, to disguise her gender.
“Yorkshire was a natural setting as Seeker is from the county and a member of a nomadic religious sect.
“Seeker coming from Yorkshire? It wasn’t a conscious decision, but when the character for Damian Seeker first came to me, looming up in my mind’s eye when I was on a winter afternoon’s walk with the dog, I knew he was from the north of England. It had taken my publisher a long time to persuade me to set a series in London, and I think I subconsciously wanted my main character to be an outsider to London, like myself.
“I wanted him to be straightforward, no-nonsense, unimpressed by show.”
The Scotland-based historical crime writer chose York by chance after going via the city to get to Theakston Old Peculier Crime Festival held in Harrogate each year.
“One day, on my way back north from Harrogate, I had a longer stop-over in York than usual and so I walked out of the station for the first time.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’d known York had some famous historical sites, but I’d had no idea just how well-preserved the city was.
“I realised that sending Seeker anywhere else would be a cop-out, and that sending him home would give me a chance to dig deeper into his character and past.
“I had the dual setting of the North York Moors because to me they had always conjured up romantic and dramatic images - blaming the Brontes this time - that to me fitted in very well with his character.”
It is 17th century York Seeker lives in. There is the castle, including Clifford’s Tower, walls, Guildhall, Minster and Merchant Adventurers’ Hall.
The Treasurer’s House is the home of General Fairfax, one of Cromwell’s most ardent supporters until he fell out of favour with the Protectorate.
It is a city of rivers – the Ouse and Foss – of narrow alleyways and steep steps “the minster stood massive and white ... dominating the city”.
Her research was intense and enjoyable. “I ordered guidebooks and maps of the city and the North York Moors - both modern and facsimiles of 17th century prints.
“I study maps relentlessly when I’m researching a book. I also plan to the nth degree. I made two main research trips for the book, as well as nipping into York while I was in Harrogate for festivals.
“The first trip was just to the city - I’d listed all the places I’d wanted to visit and just walked and walked and walked, getting to understand the layout of the city, taking notes, finding details that I would use.
“The biggest revelation though was the one place I hadn’t planned for in advance - the church of All Saints’ in North Street.
“I’d booked into the large modern hotel on the riverside and was sorry not to have a river view but then, when I looked properly, I saw that my room looked out onto a strange little row of medieval-looking houses beside an old church. I took a stroll across the road, and again, couldn’t believe what I found - The Pricke of Conscience window, the squint.
“I’d already plotted out most of the book by this time, but had got stuck with the nub of the motive and the explanation, and, not wanting to give too much away, All Saints was where I found my answers.
“I love that in researching Seeker’s billet above Walmgate Bar I was obliged to have coffee and cake in the lovely coffee shop there. Twice. My son loved the trip we made to York City’s ground at Bootham Crescent.”
Her second trip was to North York Moors. The village of Faithly - cottages, plain church, manor house and inn - the other main setting for the book is fictional.
“This time I took my teenage son with me. I hired a Fiat 500 into which I crammed said long-legged son and my two ordinance survey maps of the area.
“The Lion Inn in Blakey - a 16th century freehouse owned and run by the Crossland family since 1980 - plays a key role in the Destroying Angel.
It is located at the highest point of the North Yorks National Park and offers views over the valleys of Rosedale and Farndale.
“I’d come across the Lion Inn by chance in a news item about a big snowstorm. It looked perfectly placed for my story and, when we stayed there two nights, I realised it was just perfect.
“Now when I think of the moors I hear rap music. I’d come across the Lion Inn by chance in a news item about a big snowstorm. It looked perfectly placed for my story, and when we stayed there two nights. I realised it was just perfect.
“A sheep who woke me up by baaing indignantly at the front door of the inn, beneath my bedroom window, made it in to the book. We spent the best part of three days exploring the area and visiting locations I’d picked out in advance – the area around St Gregory’s Minster Kirkdale gave me the idea for the cave in Destroying Angel.
“The houses in Ryedale Folk Museum helped me with details of what Seeker’s house as a young married man would have been like.
“The Bridestones at Dalby Forest and the Wainstones on the Cleveland way really helped embed a sense of place and atmosphere in my mind. The Wainstones in particular seemed emblematic of Seeker himself.
“Faithly isn’t based on anywhere in particular – I’d thought it up before I went to North Yorkshire, but when we got to Hutton-le-Hole I realised it wasn’t so very different from the kind of place I’d had in mind.
“The North Yorkshire Moors are just magnificent. There is nothing I can say about them that has not been said, for centuries, by better writers than me. It makes me sad that some of my family haven’t seen them yet, but we hope to put that right in the future..
For Shona setting is fundamental to establishing atmosphere.
“In drawing my main characters. I do believe that where a person comes from somehow stays with them in a quite fundamental way, no matter how far they might try to run from it.”
She uses landscape to describe Seeker and, in the second book in the series Black Friar, that of poet and his fellow Yorkshireman Andrew Marvell who was also a spy.
“Andrew Marvell’s childhood had been composed by light, water, marshland, the great part of Hull, the sea with all the promises it whispered of a world unknown.”
“Seekers was one that had taken him to high, harsh places, craggy passes and blasted moors, or deep forests smelling of moss, bark, peat … “
“They [Seeker and Marvell] were bound by an understanding that the north was different, that they could understand in each other things those from the south and city could not.”
Shona said: “I find myself using elements of a character’s physical/geographical background to inform their character. I also find place, and sense of place are often key to helping me formulate plot.”
The fifth on the Seeker series is The House of Lamentations and is out now and costs £14.99.
“It is set in Bruges, and I had a wonderful research trip for that, but it hasn’t quite dislodged Destroying Angel as my favourite book to research,” she said.
The Seeker series: The Seeker, Black Friar, Destroying Angel, Bear Pit, The House of Lamentations
Alexander Seaton series: The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, Game of Sorrows, Crucible, The Devil’s Recruit.
All her books are published by Quercus.