Alexander Seaton

(creator: Shona MacLean)

Shona MacLean
Alexander Seaton, when we first meet him, is a 27-year-old Scotsman who had become a schoolmaster by default. He had been a would-be minister whose love affair with a local aristocrat's daughter had left him disgraced and deprived of his vocation. After his rejection, he spent a wild six months or more drinking and whoring before settling down to become "an undermaster in a burgh grammar school" at Banff. But he is obviously destined for higher things.

Shona MacLean (1966 - ) was born in Inverness and grew up in the Scottish Highlands where her parents were hoteliers. She has an M.A. and Ph.D. in 17th century History from the University of Aberdeen. She lives on the Banffshire coast with her husband and four children. She is the niece of the late novelist Alistair MacLean. Twelve agents and publishers rejected her first book, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, before she finally found an agent who accepted it. It was well reviewed, and was followed by further novels about Alexander Seaton.

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton (2008)
The Redemption of Alexander Seaton starts on a stormy night in 1626 in the northern Scottish town of Banff, where a local apothecary's assistant collapses in the street. Alexander Seaton, the local teacher and narrator, thinks he must be drunk and doesn't respond to his call to help. But next morning the man's body is found dead in Alexander's school house, murder is suspected, and when one of Alexander's few friends in the town is arrested, Alexander sets out to prove his innocence. The dying man's last words were said to have been "James and the flowers". Could this be a reference to Alexander's good friend, Doctor James Jaffray? But as Alexander tells the doctor, "For every ten men in Banff, two will be named James."

The trail leads on to witch-hunting, cruelty, prejudice and, following the discovery of a series of detailed maps of the coastline produced by the murdered man, accusations of treacherous Catholic plotting. It is also a personal quest that leads Alexander to the rediscovery of his faith in God as well as his belief in himself. As his old teacher, Dr Forbes, Professor of Divinity in the King's College of Aberdeen, tells him, "You were carnal - but who amongst us has not been tempted, has not fallen?.... In all your years here, Alexander, you grappled with and mastered the most abstruse theological propositions. You could argue any point almost as well as I could myself. For all that though, God's greatest gift in you was the pure faith with which He graced you. It was that above all that I thought would make you the finest of ministers .... But I fear you have forgotten the most important lesson of all .... The Son of God came into this world to save sinners such as you and me. That is the great Covenant. Do not ask me ever to believe, Alexander, that you have grown so arrogant as to think your sin greater than His sacrifice."

It makes a strong, if slow-moving and sometimes slightly confusing story, brought to life by very realistic descriptions of the Scottish period setting. "The place is full of ministers, and not a smiling face amongst them." The tolbooth, where Alexander's friend is held prisoner, literally stinks: "All the bodily odours we had ever encountered were compressed and magnified within those thick, stone, near-windowless walls. The damp and cold and the vermin vied for precedence in a stinking cavern of God-forsaken despair."

The characters, particularly that of Alexander Seaton himself, are well drawn and hold the attention throughout, and there are some vivid moments as when a horrified Dr Jaffray explains to Alexander, "Hell has been here, Alexander. Hell has been here tonight. They have taken her (a young woman who had committed suicide), taken up the dead body from this room, from that table, and burnt her for a witch." Tears "of utter despair rolled down his cheeks".

A few real people also appear in the book: there are cameos of a bookseller, the painter George Jameson, and map-maker and Catholic sympathiser Robert Gordon of Straloch. The author explains, "I enjoyed putting him in the book because I was able to present him in quite a sympathetic light. I'd be uncomfortable attributing actions to historical characters in fiction that were detrimental to their reputation if there was no historical foundation for it."

The story might have benefited from a little more action, and perhaps a slightly stronger plot, but it is told in a totally convincing way, and the little Scottish community really comes to life.

A Game of Sorrows (2010)
A Game of Sorrows is nearly all set in Ulster in 1628 where Alexander Seaton has been brought by one Sean O'Neill (who, amazingly, turned out to be his own brother!), all on the orders of Maeve O'Neill, forbidding mad matriarch of his newly-discovered ever-warring Irish family. It turns out that all those who bear the family blood had been placed under a curse, so one by one they are being killed off. Only Alexander is immune, his O'Neill heritage having been kept secret. So it is he who must pursue and eventually confront the killer.

There are a few exciting parts, as when Alexander is pursued by a pack of huntsmen and their yelping dogs, and it is moving when Sean's sister Deirdre wrongly identifies Alexander as his now dead brother, but there is a plethora of wild and unlikely Irish characters and it all leads up to a melodramatic and highly unconvincing climax.

Altogether, it makes a thoroughly confusing story with few characters with whom the reader can readily identify or feel much sympathy. The way that Alexander so readily sets out for Ulster at less than an hour's notice, blithely abandoning the task that he has just been given at the college where he is meant to so enjoy teaching, as well as his girl friend Sarah, all without a word of explanation, seems quite incredible. As is the way that, later on, he is so conveniently able to overhear everything said by his captors even when confined to a prison pit!

It all comes as a disappointment after the promise of the previous book, and one can only hope that Alexander soon returns to Scotland where the setting and his own behaviour are so much more realistic and convincing.

Crucible of Secrets (2011)
Crucible of Secrets is set in Aberdeen in 1631. University librarian Robert Sim has been found murdered in the college courtyard. It falls to his colleague and good friend, Alexander Seaton, to look into Sim's private life for clues as to his killer's motive. Alexander soon suspects Sim was murdered because of something he knew. On the day of his death, the librarian had been cataloguing a gift of books to the college recently arrived from overseas, among them works on alchemy and hermetics – the pursuit of ancient knowledge, and it seems that he may have got himself involved with some secret fraternity of scholars.

It is really good to find Alexander back in his Scottish setting, all those Irish adventures of three years before apparently conveniently forgotten. He has married Sarah by now, but much resents her apparent friendship with her ex-admirer Andrew Carmichael - a degree of resentment and suspicion which sometimes seems more than a little over the top. And his behaviour when he finds himself in possession of a book for which the murderer is searching and then openly walks through the town with it seems more than a little naive. But it makes a coherent and quite gripping story.

Once again it is Alexander who narrates throughout, although his narrative is not really helped by occasional interjections in italics contributed by the murderer himself who explains that he is “damned for all eternity"! It makes it all seem too artificial. However, there is some fine dramatic action when Alexander's life is saved by the intervention of his dog Dileas, and there are some interesting insights into university life at a time when "the boys" could be beaten for misbehaviour. The plot may creak at times, and, as Alexander belatedly tells the murderer, “This was not a matter to kill over“, but it holds the interest throughout.

The Devil's Recruit (2013)
The Devil's Recruit is set in Aberdeen in 1635. A girl lies dead in a frozen garden and a young man goes missing after a drunken brawl. Meanwhile a sinister cloaked figure watches from the shadows. The missing student, the son of a Highland chief, was in the class that Alexander Seaton taught. When the young man's companion turns up bruised and bloodied, suspicion mounts that he may have murdered his friend, but Alexander is convinced that there is another explanation, and, in unravelling it, discovers links to a recruiting ship and his own past.

A major problem of this book is that Alexander, now aged 35, seems to have developed into an increasingly unlikable character although he is on the point of seeing his great ambition realised and being called to the charge of the East Kirk of St Nicholas in Aberdeen, so will soon be giving up his job as regent of the highest class at Marischal College.

When Archie, a long lost friend, who had been supposed dead, turns up, Alexander's attitude to his wife Sarah is profoundly affected; "I knew in my mind and my heart that I could not, in God's truth, have told her that I would have chosen her". He has learnt too that he has had an illegitimate son in Spain and decides to "seek counsel from God" as he realises that he has no "understanding of what was going on in our town." And he is appalled when he discovers that Archie, who had become a hated, Roman Catholic, "took into his mouth the blasphemous host of the Church of Rome". Then it all leads up to an unconvincing melodramatic ending, after which Alexander and his family have to make a new beginning elsewhere.

There are well researched descriptions of bloodthirsty campaigns abroad, but the the plot lacks the appeal of some of the earlier books and is altogether less interesting.

There is an interesting interview with the author on the Living Scotsman site.

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The Redemption of Alexander Seaton cover
This was the first book of the series. It makes a promising start.
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