Source: Review copy
Publication: 14th February from Contraband
The intrepid librarian Shona McMonagle, erstwhile Marcia Blaine Academy prefect and an accomplished linguist and martial artist, finds herself in an isolated French mountain village, Sans-Soleil, which has no sunlight because of its topography. It’s reeling from a spate of unexplained deaths, and Shona has once again travelled back in time to help out. Forging an uneasy alliance with newly widowed Madeleine, Shona is soon drawn into a full-blown vampire hunt, involving several notable villagers, the world-renowned soprano Mary Garden – and even Count Dracula himself. Will Shona solve the mystery, secure justice for the murder victims and make it through a deathly denouement in the hall of mirrors to return to present-day Morningside Library?
I am really thrilled to be starting off the blog tour for the welcome return of Shona McMonagle, librarian extraordinaire and graduate of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.This is a return is to be feted. This time our intrepid librarian is in fin de siècle rural France, in the dark village of Sans-Soleil.
Shona has been sent on another time-travelling mission by the school’s eponymous matriarch, though she is on a warning. Her principal mission, to keep *that book* out of the library has been compromised by her attention to alcohol and subsequent hangover and horror of horrors, Miss Blaine herself has found her out. So Shona has been despatched post haste, and in no doubt that she must complete her mission satisfactorily, whatever that mission is….
Shona soon finds herself in the small-town of Sans-Soleil. Climbing out of the wooden box in which she has landed she quickly meets the local mayor and what seem to be the village elders, though their behaviour towards the mayor is somewhat confrontational. Fortunately, Shona’s education has prepared her not only to understand the lingua franca, but also to be able to diffuse any situation, and so, she wades in with her trusty Dr Martens and introduces herself as a tourist come to visit the village.
The very idea of a tourist in Sans-Soleil is overwhelming and as the festival of Sans-Soleil is approaching, the Mayor can see an opportunity to really put the village on the map.
Shona is billeted with Madeleine, the widow of a local policeman who, she constantly proclaims, is not dead. Is finding him Shona’s mission? Or perhaps it is to find the reason that there’s never any milk for Shona’s tea and why everyone in the village is obsessed with cheese.
Sans-Soleil is dark because it is surrounded by a dense, dark forest, which has been ruled out of bounds by the town’s trustees. That isn’t of course, going to stop Shona, a woman whose curiosity could open a shop. It is not long before she meets the occupant of Slain Castle, Dracula himself.
Dracula is not quite what Shona had been led to believe and she and the Count bond over a shared understanding of what literature can do to ruin reputations if it is badly handled.
As she settles in to Saint-Soleil, determined to find and succeed in her mission, Shona takes the opportunity to offer the benefits of her classical education to the local schoolchildren, whose academic learning seems to have given way to more practical lessons.
The genius of Olga Wojtas’ writing is that she is able to combine fact and fiction to delightful effect. Wojtas wears her erudition very lightly and uses it to charm and delight the reader in a whole host of laugh out loud moments, even as she is teaching me things I did not know. The Toulouse Lautrec example was one I had to check for myself and was thrilled when I found it to be true.
Though Ms McMonagle is indeed very well educated, that does not stop her from leaping to conclusions and it is always more by accident than design that she is able to solve the mysteries she is sent to investigate.
Folklore, legends and historical figures are all used to fabulous effect in a magnificent time-travelling oeuvre that delights and entertains never failing to endear us to the hapless Shona.
The humour is especially good in this book. Shona may consider herself to be a Scot and an internationalist, but none of that stops her from trashing the parts of Scotland that are not Edinburgh. From Aberdeen to her favourite bete-noir, Glasgow, she always has something to say about the customs and mores of these places that compares them in an unfavourable light to her beloved Morningside.
Verdict: For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will love. Shona McMonagle is fast becoming a national treasure to be wheeled out every time we are in need of a good laugh and a stiff dose of classical erudition. No-one writes quite like Olga Wojtas and the sheer brio and delicacy of her writing is a real joy to read. It’s warm, original, funny and irredeemably Scottish without losing its wider appeal. Go. Buy it.
Olga Wojtas is writer of postmodern crime fiction whose surrealist humour has been compared to the likes of PG Wodehouse, Jasper Fforde and the Marx Brothers. Her debut novel, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar, has been published in the UK and US to great critical acclaim – being longlisted for the inaugural Comedy Women in Print Prize 2019, shortlisted for a CrimeFest Award, and named as one of the best mysteries and thrillers of the year by Kirkus. A journalist for more than 30 years, Olga was Scottish editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement before she began adding creative writing to her portfolio. She won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2015 and has had numerous short stories and several novellas published. Olga lives in Edinburgh, where she once attended James Gillespie’s High School – the model for Marcia Blaine School for Girls, which appears in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the novel that inspired the Miss Blaine’s Prefect series.