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The birth of a new book – or is it twins?

By Barbara Henderson

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ARTYNESS: Barbara Henderson discovers her forthcoming release has a partner set in the same Scottish island chain

Margaret Kirk.
Margaret Kirk.

I recently met my friend Christine for a walk. We spent the entire time reminiscing – our children were born around the same time.

The first time I spoke to her was in the waiting room of an antenatal clinic. She is still a good friend – watching our offspring through each stage has forged a lasting bond. How could it not?

Last week I had a Zoom coffee with another friend, the Highland crime writer Margaret Kirk. We discovered that we will both have books out at the end of the month, due out on exactly the same day.

Her long-awaited third instalment of the Lukas Mahler series, which began with the award-winning Shadow Man, is released on April 29, called In the Blood. Her crime novel is unlikely to compete for the same audience as my own children’s Viking adventure The Chessmen Thief, out on the same day, but the books do have another thing in common.

What are the chances? Orkney is a significant setting in both books! Margaret describes hers to me as “ritual murder and ghosts from a chilling past haunt DCI Lukas Mahler in his latest case, set on the ancient Orkney Islands”. Shivers travel down my spine even thinking about it.

Like many of us, Margaret found that the pandemic had thrown a spanner in the works. In the Blood should have been released last year, but her publishers had to revise their publication schedule, delaying the book’s release.

"I was obviously disappointed. But let’s keep it all in perspective: we were in a pandemic! There were bigger things going on. It gave me a chance to look at the manuscript again and to make it as good as I could get it. I’m a bit of a hermit, so I was absolutely fine during lockdown," she laughs.

She is fond of Lukas Mahler, her Inverness-born protagonist. "He sort of jumped into my head fully formed: intelligent, dry, and an outsider trying to find his place in this changing world."

For The Chessmen Thief, Orkney was a logical setting – Norse travellers would have stopped here on route to the Hebrides and Ireland. But why did Margaret choose Orkney for hers?

"I was blown away by Orkney the first time I visited," she enthuses. "It was so green and fertile, and if you’re interested in history as I am, Orkney has it all."

She remembers the eerie atmosphere which inspired the supernatural element in In the Blood, too. "The second time we went, we rented a holiday flat, part of an old manse. I remember thinking: ‘I don’t like this’ as I ascended the stairs. In the evening, you could hear the eerie song of the seals through the open window. The book definitely has gothic touches as a result."

Orkney lends itself to brooding, atmospheric, ghostly goings on, but Margaret is clearly not done with fictional wanderlust. "I like to show people different parts of Scotland, particularly the modern Scotland which, say, American readers know little about. I’m like a criminal tourist guide if you like."

It all makes perfect sense to me. I can’t wait for both of our babies to toddle into bookshops as soon as these can open again. Margaret and I will hover in the background and watch them take their first steps.

And perhaps, in 20 years or so, we’ll meet for a walk and reminisce: "Remember when our books were born…"

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