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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Lairds of Cromarty

Jean-Pierre Ohl

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To purchase The Lairds of Cromarty

Title: The Lairds of Cromarty
Author: Jean-Pierre Ohl
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 286 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Lairds of Cromarty - US
The Lairds of Cromarty - UK
The Lairds of Cromarty - Canada
Les maîtres de Glenmarkie - Canada
The Lairds of Cromarty - India
Les maîtres de Glenmarkie - France
  • French title: Les maîtres de Glenmarkie
  • Translated by Mike Mitchell

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Our Assessment:

B+ : oddly twisted but quite enjoyable literary escapade(s)

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Lairds of Cromarty begins with a Prologue, set in 1949, on the Isle of Jura, an author mulling over his writing, the beginning of the opening sentences of some of his novels that go through his mind already identifying him to sharp-eyed readers -- though Ohl reveals just his first name (and even that likely doesn't immediately ring a bell). The suggestion seems -- at least at this point -- that what follows is his next novel, and The Lairds of Cromarty is certainly an obvious homage. Beyond that, however, it is also an homage to another literary figure, the famous 17th-century translator of Rabelais, Thomas Urquhart. This, and how Ohl presents what follows, makes for an odd match, but an entertaining story.
       The novel is presented in alternating chapters that focus on two characters: Mary Guthrie, ready to set out for university in Edinburgh in the fall of 1949, where she plans to study literature ("still unaware that university is for the love of literature what caster oil is for thirst") and a Catholic priest, Ebenezer Krook, who might be related to the Urquharts. Krook and Guthrie eventually ill-advisedly get too carried away by the moment and each other, and Krook -- who with the nickname 'Mad Dog' perhaps wasn't ideal father-material in any case -- is defrocked. He comes to work in a small used bookshop in Edinburgh (which only sells books that were first published at least fifty years earlier), while she hopes to write her PhD on old Urquhart -- though, in fact:

Breacan's dog had started trotting round inside my head again in the form of a project, still vague, alongside my 'real' work as a student: to write the story of Mary Guthrie writing the story of Thomas Urquhart.
       Her project takes her to the Urquhart's dilapidated estate, where she becomes part of the odd little group assembled there, providing typing services for an unusual project (simply titled Cinema, it is a comprehensive record of sorts, but not likely to find a wide readership) in exchange for access to what's left of the Urquhart family library and holdings. The centerpiece there is a cleverly designed desk with thirty-two drawers, each successive one only opening when previous ones are opened and closed in a specific sequence -- meaning there are exponentially more possible combinations for unlocking each successive drawer (and meaning also that no one has ever opened the lot). The promise is that the final one reveals the whereabouts of the Urquhart treasure .....
       Frenchman Ohl fashions an atmospheric and convincingly Scottish whisky-steeped novel in intertwining several stories and paths. Ranging from various isles to the (remains of) the Urquhart estate (complete with secret passages) and more cosmopolitan Edinburgh, and populated with a set of appealingly odd characters (and the occasional apparition), The Lairds of Cromarty is an enjoyable multilayered literary puzzler that works on its several levels -- from plain treasure hunt (the desk and its mysteries) to literary-historical mystery. Thoroughly bookish, it's a nice homage to several writers and many books (as, for example, Jack London's Martin Eden plays an important role), but Ohl also nails the locales.
       Good fun, and cleverly done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 May 2013

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The Lairds of Cromarty: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jean-Pierre Ohl is a French author.

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