Death Parts Us – Guest Post

Today I have a guest post from Alex Walters, discussing the setting for his latest work, Death Parts Us:

Book Description:

Twenty years ago, Jackie Galloway was a senior cop with a bad reputation. Then he ended up on the wrong side of the wrong people, and his career was ruined. Sacked and with no pension, he ends up eking out his last days on Scotland’s Black Isle, his mind lost to dementia, supported only by his long-suffering wife, Bridie.

 

Then Galloway is found dead. The police assume the death to be accidental, until Bridie Galloway reveals that her husband has been receiving apparently threatening letters containing only the phrase: ‘NOT FORGOTTEN. NOT FORGIVEN.’

 

DI Alec McKay is struggling to come to terms with life without his estranged wife Chrissie, and is living in isolation on the Black Isle. As a junior officer, McKay had been allocated to Galloway’s team and has bad memories of the man and his methods. Now he finds himself investigating Galloway’s death.

 

But when suspicion falls on him and more police officers are murdered, the pressure is on for McKay to solve the case.

 

Why would the killer seek revenge twenty years after Galloway left the force?

 

As McKay fights to link the events of past and present, he realizes that time is rapidly running out…

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Links:

Available now from Amazon and Bloodhound Books

 

Website: www.alexwaltersauthor.com/

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexwaltersauthor/

Twitter: @mikewalters60

 

Guest Post:

MURDER IN THE BLACK ISLE

 

The Black Isle, as DI Alec McKay would be the first to tell you, is famously neither black nor an island. It’s the peninsular that juts out into the North Sea just north of Inverness, bounded by the Beauly, Moray and Cromarty Firths. As for the ‘black’—well, no-one really knows. One theory is that, because of its local microclimate, the Black Isle tends to be less susceptible to snow than the surrounding Highland region. Another, more intriguing theory is that the name refers to the area’s historical associations with witchcraft and the black arts. McKay, with the typical suspicions of a city boy, thinks the latter is more likely.

 

The area is less remote now than in the past, particularly since the opening of the Kessock Bridge over the Moray Firth in the early 1980s provided easier access from Inverness. But the Black Isle still carries an atmosphere all of its own. When I was seeking a location for a new crime series, I felt no need to look any further.

 

Although I was born in the English midlands, I’ve been making regular visits to the Scottish Highlands and Islands since I was a child. Quite what possessed my parents to drive up there so frequently in the days before motorways, I’ve no real idea, but they did it frequently. I have childhood memories of glorious scenery, empty beaches and—well, fairly mixed weather.

 

Even so, the Black Isle was unfamiliar to me until about ten years ago. It was just a name I’d driven by on the endless A9 heading even further north. Then, on a whim, we booked a holiday house in Rosemarkie and spent a couple of weeks falling in love with the place. We’ve spent a lot of our time there since, and we’re now in the process of making a permanent move (we’d already be there if it weren’t for the vagaries of the English house-selling system—suffice to say that an unreliable buyer may well come to an unpleasant end in one of my future books).

 

Location has always been an important element in my writing. My first three crime novels were set in the exotic environment of modern-day Mongolia. My subsequent Marie Donovan and Kenny Murrain series were located in and around Manchester, making use of both the urban settings and the surrounding Cheshire and Derbyshire countryside. I soon realised that the Black Isle offered a range of atmospheric backdrops that would provide the perfect setting for a new series.

 

The area packs extraordinary diversity within its small boundaries. Rosemarkie itself offers a strikingly beautiful beach, backed by woodland and fossil-filled cliffs. The village of Avoch (pronounced, with typical perversity, simply ‘Och’) is a working fishing village. Fortrose has its own ruined cathedral. Cromarty is an atmospheric jumble of narrow streets and vennels, offering striking views of the beauties of the Cromarty Firth and, more unexpectedly, the huge constructs of oil rigs being restored or dismantled in Nigg on the far side of the firth.

 

Apart from the sleazy Caledonian Bar, virtually all the locations described in the Alec McKay books are real (although sometimes lightly fictionalised to protect the innocent). The first book, Candles and Roses, begins in the eerie setting of the Clootie Well, a supposedly holy stream where the surrounding woodland is festooned with faded and rotting scraps of cloth. These are offerings left by visitors in the hope of securing improved health for ailing relatives or friends—the cloth has been wiped on the brow of the sick individual and, as the cloth rots away, so the illness is supposedly cured. Whatever the truth of that, the whole place has a disturbing atmosphere. Kelly, a young woman who appears in that scene, thinks ‘…the place was infested by ghosts, the spirits of those who clung on, earthbound by their last dregs of hope’. That was my feeling, the first time I visited, so what else could I do but leave a murder-victim there?

 

Of course, the real Black Isle is a tranquil place, untroubled by anything much more than the most trivial crimes. I’ve already managed incongruously to locate two serial killers in this most peaceful of rural environments. But that’s what crime writers do—think of Morse’s Oxford or Midsomer, apparently the murder capital of the UK. It seems to me that, for the reader, one of the incidental pleasures of crime fiction is often the contrast between the beauty of the settings and the horrors that are being enacted within them.

 

In this case, as in my Manchester-set books, the reader’s suspension of disbelief is helped by the proximity to an urban environment. McKay and his colleagues are based in Inverness—not a large city but one which offers a useful contrast to the quiet of the Black Isle and surrounding Highland countryside. The stories tend to have their roots in the city, even if the consequences play out in the country. In this fictional world, the Black Isle is somewhere people go to hide their secrets or to lose their past. Even McKay himself, in the latest book Death Parts Us, seeks bleak sanctuary there as his marriage disintegrates.

 

And, of course, like all locations that attract tourists, the Black Isle is a different place out of season. In summer, the place has a striking beauty, bathed in long light nights and wide translucent skies. In the winter, as the darkness closes in and the rain and wind whip in across the firths, the atmosphere is different again. Then his becomes a community closed in upon itself, focused on its own interests rather than the needs of visitors. That’s when secrets can breed and fester, and the seeds of future crimes are sown.

 

As I say, that’s what we crime writers do. We imagine what hidden truths might be lurking behind the curtained windows we pass, what dark thoughts might be crossing the minds of those we encounter in the streets. And from that we construct our narratives of murder and revenge, exploiting the otherwise-innocent world around us to help render them plausible.

 

It goes without saying that this is simply fiction. I hope that the good people of the Black Isle will forgive me for making use of their home in this way. The killings aren’t real. But the glorious, atmospheric settings are genuine, and I hope that in my writing I’ve managed to do them some justice.

 

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An open letter to Nicola Sturgeon (from a teacher desperate to love his job again).

A departure from book business today:

Ms Sturgeon.

I voted ’Yes’ in the Scottish referendum. I’ve voted SNP (as well as Labour, Lib-Dem and Greens) I’ll probably vote SNP again. I’ve even been a member.

I’ve admired you as one of the most socially-conscious (and shrewd) politicians of modern times for several years. I’ve also been a Secondary school teacher for almost sixteen years and I implore you, in the strongest possible terms; utilise the resources, the well of skills and experts you have at your disposal, and please, please save our education system from the disaster that is CFE.

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In last six years I’ve witnessed, and been unwilling party to, an unprecedented decline in the organisation and standard of Scottish education. Simply, the system as it stands is not fit for purpose. It is demoralising, hobbling and utterly failing the children in our care; as well as lowering attainment and widening social inequality in our pupils.

 

For my own subject, Biology, the vast changes made to date have resulted in a course that is unreasonably difficult, lacking opportunity for practical activities, far too prescriptive, overly concerned with inconsequential minutiae and extremely content-heavy. In its present form the Nat 5 Biology course is a joyless, intimidating and gruelling experience for those who choose to study it. Success in the course is also only achievable for the very best of our pupils, leaving students who would have formerly attainted at a Standard Grade 3 or even a 2, with little hope of passing, and in many cases, unable to even sit the final exam.

In implementing CFE, Teachers were put to the task of designing and writing courses for the new Nat 4 and Nat 5 qualifications with no clear guidance on standards, or assessment structure. This resulted in every department in every school in Scotland designing their own versions of this course. The pupils’ experience of Biology Nat 5 in Scotland will be vastly different in standard depending on where they attend school and the course-writing skills of their teachers.

The powers that be, not happy with furnishing teachers with an ill-conceived structure and content, have further compounded this basic failure by changing that content and structure continually for the last five years. This means teachers haven’t taught the same material two years running yet.

This affects pupil experience in a drastic way. We simply don’t have the experience of the courses to suitably prepare our kids. On many occasions the course guidelines have been changed at the mid-way point of the year, severely hobbling the teachers’ ability to advise the pupils, and the pupils’ ability to pass the criteria demanded.

With Standard Grade, each pupil had an opportunity to sit exams at two levels, a chance to have a good day and attain a higher grade than they’d perhaps demonstrated throughout the year. With National 5, a large portion of our kids simply aren’t permitted to sit the final exam, dropping instead to the coursework-based Nat 4.

In an ideal world the National 4 qualification would be recognised as well-earned. The kids do indeed have to work to gain this award. The skills and knowledge needed to pass national 4 Biology are comparable to a good general grade pass under the old system. Despite this, as National 4 is currently unexamined, employers fail to recognise this achievement, and frankly so do the pupils’ themselves. National 4 is essentially the equivalent of a Grade 3 in Standard grade, but isn’t valued at all. Indeed, some of the kids pigeon-holed into Nat 4 would’ve been permitted, not just a general exam under the old scheme, but also a go at credit. Some may have stretched themselves and attained a grade 2. Now they don’t even sit the exam. Instead, they are in effect categorised as not academic and sat to one side as the certificate kids get taught how to pass the exam. This elitist approach is counter to any good teacher’s desire to provide the best opportunity for our children to succeed. I didn’t become a teacher to tell a portion of my kids hey aren’t good enough to sit an exam.

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Teaching in schools is a special privilege and a role that I’ve felt honoured to perform for most of my adult life. I love my job. I love being a good teacher and giving the kids the best chance I can provide for them to reach their potential and move onto the next phase of their lives with the academic and social skills I’ve assisted them in developing. Most teachers feel this way. At least they tell themselves they do because that’s the way they’ve felt in the past. Until CFE.

Today, right now in schools across Scotland, teachers are losing morale on a scale I’ve never seen and didn’t think could happen.

The current conditions for teachers are so gruelling that we are beginning to hate, to dread, stress over and now depart a role we loved so much but are growing to hate the manner in which we have to perform it. It’s not easy to demotivate teachers in this way, we’re virtually pre-programmed to toil on in hard times and make the best of our working conditions, because we need to perform at our best for the children in our care. We’re good at making do. Still, CFE has succeeded in making us feel as though we’re failing our pupils continuously.

No-one likes to feel like they’re failing, not at home and not at work. That feeling is especially crushing for teachers who have so many young people depending on their guidance. Knowing that you are not being permitted to do your job to the best of your ability is devastating to a teacher’s morale.

This isn’t a bleat from a teacher about pay, workload or lack of development time to write and rewrite courses continuously. It’s a simple fact. Teachers are demoralised, stressed and being ground down because we know that we are not doing the best that we can for the kids in our care.

We are being prevented by a sub-standard curriculum and never-ending bureaucracy from educating our kids properly. We are failing these kids. That is why we are growing to hate the job and the system that is forcing us to work so much less skilfully and effectively than we should be.

This is why teachers are leaving the profession. This is why prospective young teachers are taking one look at the profession and deciding against it, and why schools are struggling to fill key vacancies as evidenced by Trinity High’s recent attempt to recruit parent helpers. 

Recruiting a slew of young teachers trained for five weeks in the summer will not even begin to fix this. The issues with recruitment and retention of teachers stems from the fact that we are not empowered to do our jobs effectively.

Nicola, you must turn your face from the never-ending cycle of sound-bites, argument and counter-argument and endless campaigning, and begin to address the logistic and practical mess that CFE has become.

I implore you, recruit actual, practicing teachers, rather than educationalists to provide solutions for the current issues. Get them in a room and use their insight and expertise to fix the massive problems with CFE and give the children of Scotland an opportunity to enjoy and benefit from an education that will engage them in an inclusive way.

The disparity between the opportunities being offered to children from differing backgrounds, affluence, and academic ability is a disgrace. We must have more equality in the system. We absolutely require a school system that makes its children feel valued and provided for. That empowers its teachers to do the job to the standard we know is required and is not currently being attained.

What we require, right now, is a genuine, honest to God, fit for purpose education that all children can access. Head teachers, Principal teachers and classroom teachers (and many others across local authorities) are working very hard to try to make the best of CFE, but we need help. A lot of it.

Simply give us the means to do the best we can for our children. We don’t mind working hard for those kids. We generally thrive on that pressure. That teachers are losing heart, motivation and morale should scream loudly to your government how futile our efforts seem to us and how concerned we are that our education system is utterly broken.  

Let us do our jobs properly. Let us love being teachers again.

Mr Wilson

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Further reading.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/schools-facing-major-crisis-as-teachers-reach-breaking-point-1-4559526

All views are my own and do not represent the views of fife Council or Dunfermline High School.