There's not much action -- in a mystery/thriller sense -- until the very end, but British author Louise Welsh gives us a good dose of suspense throughout the book. There's a sustained note of dread overlying her tale of a young-ish academic whose projected biography of a long-dead poet is at a standstill.
Professor Murray Watson has the job he has always wanted in Glasgow, Scotland, but he remains discontented. His frustration has led him into a dead-end affair with a fellow academic, who also happens to be married to the head of his department. His brother, Jack, is an artist, and when Murray attends Jack's opening exhibition for his current work, he discovers that Jack has used a family tragedy as his inspiration. Although he's angry at his lover for dumping him, at his brother for exposing his family's low point, at each block in the road to discovering more about poet Archie Lunan, instead of throwing in the towel on all counts, Murray doggedly seeks to pull in the threads of Archie's life. Of course, he has to accomplish this around frequent drinking bouts.
When he was still a young man, having achieved some success with a book of poetry in the 1970s, Archie sailed onto a stormy sea one night and was never seen again. Murray's prize interview would be with Archie's former girlfriend, Christie Graves, who lives on a remote Scottish island, but she's not interested in talking with him. In the process of conducting his research, Murray brings to light some hidden relationships and mysteries but, with the exception of Archie, there's nary a dead body in sight. Then Murray learns that another researcher, who was looking into suicidal patterns, died in a car accident on the little island where Christie lives. Unlike Murray, he had managed somehow to secure an interview with Christie.
Was Archie murdered? Was the other researcher murdered after uncovering something unsavory? At the risk of his life, should Murray pursue an interview with Christie? In his academic world, who are his friends and who are his enemies? In the end, we discover that nothing is as it first seemed, and this is where Welsh excels. She slowly teases out the real story of a poet and his group of friends, and the madness that sometimes grips people when joy should be there instead.
Louise Welsh tells a finely twisted tale, creates a stunningly ominous setting, and makes Murray Watson a sympathetic and very human character.