Winter on Shetland. Everything blanketed in snow. It is customary, apparently, on New Year's Eve, to call on one's neighbours, have a drink with them, wish them well.
No one has ever called on Magnus Tait, at least not since his old mother died. Not on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day or any other day of the year. Not since a little girl called Catriona disappeared right after visiting him and his mother, making him the obvious suspect. After all, he was simple and strange and just the kind of person who would kill little girls. But her body was never found and there was no evidence that she had even been killed, let alone that he killed her, so he was released after experiencing some rather brutal questioning by police who "knew" (as did everyone else on the island) that he had murdered the child. His mother died, and he lived alone, year after year.
On this New Year's Eve, as always, he had the whisky and the cake ready as his mother had taught him. And suddenly, as he was about to give up and go to bed, he heard voices. Girls' voices. Two girls of sixteen, seventeen, knocked at the door. They'd been drinking, were on their way home, had been dropped off at the end of the lane to walk the rest of the way, and saw his light on.
One was Catherine Ross, an English girl who had only recently come to live there with her widowed and inconsolable father, now a teacher at the local secondary school. The other was Sally, her friend, the daughter of the headmistress of the primary school. Perhaps they didn't have much in common but were driven together by the loneliness that teachers' children always experience.
Catherine, of course, knew nothing of Magnus Tait's sinister reputation, and it was she who wanted to drop in on him. Perhaps she would have anyway, even if she had known. She was that kind of girl. Beautiful, confident and – as it turned out – making a film about the people of the island as a 6th Form English project, a brutally truthful film, in which she would certainly have wanted Magnus to appear.
They leave after a drink and some cake and go home. No problem.
But the next day, Catherine's body is found in the snow not far from Magnus's house.
What chance has he? The only person who even considers the remote possibility that it might not have been Magnus who killed Catherine is the local Inspector Perez (proud descendant of a ship-wrecked Spanish sailor at the time of the Armada!) but then a team of detectives is despatched from Inverness and it is taken out of his hands.
Gradually, we learn more about various people who live on the island and realise that Magnus is far from being the only weird one. However – no, I mustn't tell you any more, it will spoil it for you.
I loved it. Loved the story and the people, and especially the fascinating setting. I must go to Shetland one day. Perhaps even in the winter for New Year and "Up Helly Aa"!