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Cath a visually impaired photographer is undertaking a project about murder houses. Showing how they look so ordinary and normal, even though the most horrific things have happened inside. As the project develops Cath is drawn back to the island where she had spent her childhood, and where her best friend Shirley, Shirley’s mother and brother were murdered by Shirley’s father. Now an adult Cath travels back to the island to take photos of the house for her project, and starts trying to understand what happened on the day her friend died. While the official police report on the murders appear to be straight forward something nags at Cath and she feels the need to delve further.
While Good Neighbours is definitely and firmly in the genre of crime fiction, it is primarily a book about how we see. How the way we see things over time can change, how people can be looking at the same thing, but see something completely different, or maybe, not even see it at all. The narrative is deceptively simple, in many ways because to really see the story you have to consider it from so many points of view, consider that what was decidedly make believe to one character was decidedly real to the world in which another lives. That in many ways we are mainly people who just happen to intersect with each other for a short time. It is impossible to truly know how other people really see the world or ourselves. It is so often time that is the only thing that gives us real perspective.
Given how well Allan writes, and the complex world she builds The Good Neighbours never-the-less falls flat for me. The main reason is that the folkloric element, which is wonderfully interwoven into the contemporary story does not feel as though it is part of the island. There is mention of red caps which are said to haunt the mainland border region, but it is Queen Mab, a Shakespearian invention who is the main feature. It is a pity this relatively young upstart in the fairy world was at the centre of this narrative strand rather than choosing something from the rich folklore of the Scottish islands, which may go back millennia rather than mere centuries, and is interwoven into the landscape, cultures and customs in a more primitive, but more urgent and primal way than Shakespeare, who for all his importance is still a relatively new kid on the block when it comes to depth of culture. Indeed this misstep means that the sense of place, much fetishized in the world of crime fiction, does not reach down to its roots of this work, but rather finds purchase in shallow ground.