Review of The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill, by C. S. Robertson

Though I’m not certain if the title character exemplifies the current vogue for narrators who are somewhere ‘on the spectrum’, Grace is most surely not well endowed with social skills. She lives alone with no friends except for her cat George (found appropriately in a cemetery). Her mother is dead, but she endures the importunities of her father, a nasty alcoholic. Appropriately they live in Glasgow. (Does Scotland harbour the most repulsive drinkers and druggies?) But Grace has the perfect occupation for a person of her social skills; she’s a ‘death cleaner’. When you discover a tenant died alone in one of your flats and has been decomposing for weeks, after the cops have carried away the pestiferous remains you call Grace for a thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the premises. Grace also has an odd hobby; she crafts dioramas of the death scenes, carefully reproducing in miniature all the details – except fortunately the corpses. Curiosity about one of her ‘clients’, Tommy Agnew, leads her to attending the funeral and then to the ‘crem’ where Grace pretends to be the grand-niece of the deceased and actually stages a wake at a nearby pub for Bob and Jackie, the only mourners. Grace had found an old photo at Agnew’s flat showing five teen-aged boys, Tommy, Bob, Jackie, and two others. It was taken at Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, which used to be a popular holiday resort back in the 1960s. Backtracking in newspaper achieves, Grace discovers a cold case, a seventeen-year-old girl named Valerie Moodie, who disappeared on a holiday trip to Bute in July 1964. Grace becomes obsessed with the case, travelling by train and ferry to Rothesay, tracking down the places Valerie and her friends stayed, and questioning an alcoholic old fisherman who had reported seeing a floating body, but later retracted.

As it so often the case with mystery stories using a first-person narrator, Grace actually knew more about Tommy Agnew than we find out till much later in the book, which explained something I found puzzling, why Grace keeps lying about her identity, first pretending to be a relative of Agnew’s and later to being a journalist investigating a cold case. (If it were me, I’d simply have claimed to be a free-lance true crime writer – no problem is awkward questions about what paper I worked for. Though I was delighted to discover there actually was a paper called The Bute-Man in the old days.). The title, The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill, turns out to signify more than it might appear on the surface, what in grammar are called the subjective and objective genitive. 

I had been aware that the Earl of Rothesay is Prince Charles’s title when he is in Scotland, but Rothesay and Bute were new to me and made me wish I’d had the chance to visit, though not in June. The sailing looks great. Some of the events in this story struck me as improbable – I certainly hope it’s not so easy to gain access to a cardiology patient unobserved: some of the things British mystery story writers allow to happen in hospital are not great advertisements for the NHS. But I loved the settings in Glasgow; the Royal Infirmary is indeed and imposing pile. If you enjoy the novels of Helen Fitzgerald, I think you will like this one too. Grace is as eccentric as Fitzgerald’s principal characters, though not quite so amusing and likeable. I certainly anticipate C. R. Robertson’s next book.

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