The remote Isle of Lewis has only had three murders in over forty years. When Helen Riley is asked to investigate a suspicious death in Port of Ness, no-one intends to help her uncover a fourth murder. As she gets closer to the truth, Riley faces threats to herself, her client and her family. Riley is confronted by assassination drones plus a powerful international network of collusion and conspiracy that threatens her job, her family and her life. Cut adrift, she embarks on a fight for justice and revenge. The Machair Crow is a novel that features one woman’s battle against the illicit use of assassination drones and how she overcomes the conspiracy to silence her. A fine detective story and also a novel about drones, covert surveillance and the development of secret kill-lists. Riley is a kick-ass combination of Jack Reacher and Lisbeth Salander. She’s a private investigator based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She’s been army trained as an undercover surveillance officer with the army’s special forces. After she left the forces, she worked as a police detective in Newcastle before turning private. She doesn’t do demure and compliant. If you like your heroines demure and compliant, this is not the book for you.
Targeted Age Group:: 16 – 90
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander, Harry Hole, and Mitch Rapp. I was inspired by Lee Child’s novel ‘Nothing to Lose.’ It was the idea of the police being in the pocket of an evil secret organization and moving Jack Reacher out of town in order to stop him asking questions that got me started. You’ll see shades of that scenario with Helen Riley – someone who refuses to take ‘No’ for an answer. Starting to write was in a moment of arrogance really. I was reading an eBook that contained a few flaws and I said to myself, ‘I’m sure I could do better than this. How hard could it be?’ Like Mark Twain said, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” I discovered the hard way how difficult it is to write a good novel that people want to read.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Helen Riley gets the most coverage as the heroine. Helen Riley’s character drew on an autobiography by Jackie George called ‘She Who Dared.’ Jackie was the first woman in the SAS and she worked on covert surveillance in Northern Ireland. The next step for me was, ‘what if she (Helen Riley) left the SAS and worked as a PI?’
It looked like the gateway to Hell. A menacing broth of pounding waves, jagged rocks and hissing foam ninety feet below. Professor Peter Scott inched closer to peer over the cliff edge in front of the Butt of Lewis lighthouse To slip would mean certain death. Down there among the rocks was the spot where his friend Murdo had been found dead two weeks earlier. Tourists came here to marvel at the elements. Locals didn’t need to. There was no reason for Murdo to be up here at the Butt.
The smell of salty seaweed swept in on the cold wind. He watched the glow of the setting sun disappear then headed back to Minch View Cottage. The headland was riven with ridges and wide furrows every few yards. To walk along the headland meant stepping over the boggy base of the furrows. It took an hour for Peter Scott to reach the corner of the cliff and make the final turn south. Dark now, the heavy clouds had crept overhead. Between windy gusts he thought he could hear something. Looking up, he saw something in the air above. A red light that was barely moving. It wasn’t natural. Fear rose in his stomach. He quickened his pace. This made walking across the furrows more difficult and he stumbled. Damp water seeped through the knees of his trousers. Again he looked up. A red light was following him, he was sure of it.
The walls of the cottage came into view ahead. He’d left the yard light on. It wasn’t far. He was running and stumbling now, not caring how wet he got. Down he went again, not stopping to look upwards. The metal gate that led into the cottage yard was locked. Something sharp caught his thigh as he climbed over. When he reached the gravel drive and looked around, he saw the light disappearing into the night sky. He felt relieved. He was breathing heavily. His head was aching. The pain in his chest made him wince. Nausea swept over him, his throat was tight and he had a dull ache in his head. Beside the cottage was its wheelie bin and he reached to it for support. Then everything went dark. He didn’t feel the ground when his head hit it. He wasn’t going to feel anything else again.
Sergeant Donald MacLeod was updating his report on the break in at the primary school in Barvas when his inspector, Calum Matheson, strode into the room. The inspector was tall and stocky with a weather-beaten face and untidy grey hair. He could do with a haircut, thought Donald. Inspector Matheson was counting down the years till his retirement. He was once sharp and enthusiastic, but now he looked tired and old. His wife had died three years earlier and his brain-injured daughter was being looked after in a care home in Glasgow. Calum Matheson lived on his own in a big house in Stornoway waiting for the day when he didn’t need to come into the station.
‘Everyone, I need your attention.’ Matheson said. ‘There’s been a body found in Port of Ness.’
They all stopped what they were doing.
‘The morning postman found the body. He called the GP who then called us. We’re going to do the full scene of crime process ourselves. I’ve sent Gallacher and Murray over to secure the scene.’
The officers who were in the room, all six of them, quickly focused. There were only a few days like this during the year. They always had the same initial thought. Is it someone that I know?
Matheson went on, ‘We need to clarify whether there was any foul play. Ferguson, you call Doctor Russell at the hospital. Ask her to get herself over there. Glenn, get hold of Duffy. Tell him to take his camera. I’ve just phoned Inverness and asked for their forensic people to come over. They’ll be at least four hours. All we know at the moment is that he was English and a professor.’ Relief spread around the room. It was no-one that they knew. No-one was on speaking terms with an English professor.
‘Now, listen.’ Matheson paused and looked around the room. ‘If I find a word of this getting into the Chronicle before I give them the briefing, that person will be out of here. Do I make myself clear?’ Nobody spoke. They were remembering Matheson’s last outburst when the local press got the story in advance of his official briefing. It made him look stupid. It was not a look that suited Inspector Matheson.
‘Someone has been leaking stories. I want it to stop.’ He stared at the officers in the room in turn, waiting until his silence raised their anxiety. Then he was finished. He knew that they knew he meant business.
‘Sergeant MacLeod, you come with me. We’ll take your car.’
Liz Arran had been driving for over forty minutes when she eased down the final slope towards Port of Ness. The sky was ominously dark with thick heavy cloud. The road was grey, the houses were grey, including the ones that had been painted white and the fine drizzle was grey. The air was permeated with the unmistakable sharp smell of peat fires. Even inside her car she could smell the peats burning. Beyond the cottages in the distance was the menacing ocean that buffeted the Butt of Lewis lighthouse. She always enjoyed this descent to the most northerly point of the Western Isles. It brought back memories of her childhood. Long happy days spent with her grandmother on the family croft at Lionel. She passed it on her left. The old disused house was boarded up and the dark purple paint on the boards had almost washed away. The grass was high. The old loom shed at the back of the house had lost its windows and its tin roof was rusted and bright orange.
She continued on down past the Port and onwards to Minch View Cottage. The cottage had the best view of any of the houses in the Port looking down on the swelling sea breaking over the harbour walls. Today a group of local women huddled around the gate of the old Post Office. Liz parked her car and got out. The fresh breeze and damp air made her shiver and she pulled her down jacket from the back seat. At the end of the cottage driveway stood a young man with dark hair and a green jacket. Her blonde hair, blue eyes and big smile brightened up an otherwise gloomy morning for him. She strode up to him, smiling, with one hand outstretched. She cheerfully introduced herself.
‘Good morning, I’m Liz Arran from the Lewis Chronicle. How do you do?’ She shook his cold hand and waited until he reciprocated.
‘Hi. I’m Doctor Caldwell. . . Mathew. I’m the GP covering North Dell and Ness.’
‘I see we got here before the Northern Constabulary.’
‘That’s who I’m waiting for. They should be here any time soon.’
‘Where’s the body?’
‘Around the back. They won’t let you go through. The police are treating it as a crime scene.’
‘A crime scene?’
‘Oh, I don’t think it was a crime. It looks like he’s had a heart attack or maybe fallen? He has a small cut on his head but I think he got that when he fell. There’s no sign of any other trauma.’
‘Who was he?’
‘He’s English. From Newcastle University, I believe? The women over there told me all about him. They all seemed to like him.’
Liz glanced across at the huddle of four women.
‘How long has he been dead?’
‘Oh, I’d say he died late last night. Fraser found him.’
Doctor Caldwell nodded in the direction of the red van parked beside the police car.
‘Fraser was delivering the post this morning and he came across him lying at the back door. It gave him quite a shock. We’re both waiting to give the Police our statements, then we’ll get away.’
He scanned the horizon again.
‘I think I can see the thin blue line coming over the hill?’
Liz quickly calculated that she had five minutes before the scene would be further locked down. ‘I’m just going to have a quick word with Fraser, I’ll catch you later.’
She crossed the path, opened the door of the red Post Office van and climbed in beside the occupant.
‘Hi Fraser.’ She offered her outstretched hand to him. ‘I’m Liz Arran from the Lewis Chronicle. I hear that you found the body?’
‘Aye,’ he said, offering little more information.
‘What did he look like?’
‘He looked dead.’ There was a note of contempt in his voice, but Liz ignored it.
‘How could you be sure that he was dead?’
‘Oh, you could tell all right. He was white. There was no colour on him at all. I’ve seen it before. Those sailors that were washed up. You remember? They were all the same. White as a sheet, he was. I gave him a quick shake to see if there was any movement but it was pointless. He had that far away stare in his eyes. And his mouth was lying open. You just don’t expect it. One minute you’re whistling up the pathway with the post in your hand, next minute you’re shaking a dead body, asking it if he’s all right.’
‘How was he lying?’
‘On his back, face up. What a way to go. And he was soaking wet. It was raining during the night so he must have been there for a long time.’
‘Did you know him, to talk to?’
‘Oh aye. He was a grand talker, he was. Always stopped and passed the time of day with you. He would walk along the shore at the end of the day, taking in the waves. Like a tourist.’
Liz noticed the police cars coming around the corner.
‘Thanks Fraser. The police are here now. They’ll want to talk to you now. Bye.’
She got out and walked over to Doctor Caldwell.
Donald MacLeod’s police car descended down the hill to the village of Port of Ness. He noticed a huddle of women standing at one of the houses. It was damp and grey and they would normally be indoors, but there had been a death in the village. It was an incomer, from England. Donald thought he could imagine their conversation:
‘Who was he? I don’t think I met him?’
‘He had a beard and glasses. He was always out walking. I spoke to him on the beach only yesterday. In the morning. He was very nice. Very polite. He was renting the cottage from Mhari.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘They found him at the back of the house. Fraser Morrison found him. He was taking him a parcel. ‘
‘Was he on holiday?’
‘No. He was working. He works for the government in Edinburgh.’
‘Here? Doing what?’
‘Something to do with the sheep. He was a vet.’
‘Oh? A vet?’
Donald made a mental note to interview the neighbours. They would know all about him, whether he had visitors, how he spent his time, who he spoke to. If there was anything suspicious going on, they would have seen it and discussed it.
There were four cars outside the cottage and police tape was draped across the gate. Constables Gallacher and Murray were stationed at the front letting no one through. The bright red postal van was parked beside the police car. Fraser Morrison sat inside, waiting. Inspector Matheson was first out. Donald waited a few moments to let him get ahead. It was his boss’s call and that was fine by him. Off to the right, he recognised the two people who were talking. Mathew Caldwell and a young blonde woman. The young blonde approached Matheson. She was holding a portable recorder in her outstretched hand.
‘Inspector Matheson, the Lewis Chronicle would be grateful for anything you can tell our readers about the death of Professor Scott. Doctor Caldwell says there are no signs of external trauma. Can you confirm this?’
‘No, I can’t. The pathologist will determine how the victim died, not the local GP.’ He glared at Mathew Caldwell with contempt.
‘When we have something to tell the Chronicle, we’ll let you know.’ He gestured to Doctor Caldwell to walk with him to the cottage. ‘Perhaps you could tell me what you have found Doctor Caldwell, rather than the local press?’
Sergeant Macleod watched them both walk to the rear of the cottage before following behind them. When he rounded the corner of the cottage he caught sight of the body of Professor Scott lying on his back in a green waxed jacket and jeans. His walking boots were pointing skywards and his face was pale blue with a pained strained expression. He’d seen a few dead bodies. Usually you had an idea about how they died from their surroundings. In Glasgow, it was normally a road traffic accident, a stabbing or a beating. On Lewis the dead bodies were either lying in bed or washed up on the rocks. This one was unusual, so close to home but not quite making it.
I was born in Glasgow and studied English Literature at Stirling University before taking my Masters Degree in Education at Newcastle University. I worked as a manager in Children’s Services in England where I wrote a book on leadership (Chance Favours The Prepared Mind) before writing this, my first novel. The sequel is called Dixon’s Revenge and part of it is also based out on the Dhiobadail moor on the Isle of Lewis. I live in Newcastle Upon Tyne with wonderful Angela and our two sons.
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