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Book review: Alan Gillespie – The Mash House

Alan Gillespie is a writer and teacher from Fife who has studied at the Universities of Stirling, Glasgow, and Strathclyde. In 2011 he was awarded the Scottish Emerging Writer residency at Cove Park. The Mash House is his debut novel, notable for being fully crowdfunded by publishing platform Unbound.

A thriller set in the fictional village of Cullrothes in the Scottish Highlands, The Mash House is dense with nods towards the genre. It’s a pacey, island-set crime novel that renders readers invested with a brilliant tale that successfully alludes to the darker, less picturesque side of the Highlands. And this is where our attention is turned: a close community bound together by the local distillery, drugs, and derangement.

The Mash House centres around couple Alice and Innes, who move to the village for a teaching job and a cosy cottage for rent. It’s not long before Innes becomes a known face, managing the local pub; but in doing so, feels disrespected and derided. In the same village, aggressive distillery owner Donald floods the countryside with narcotics alongside his single malt. When his son goes missing, he becomes haunted by an anonymous American investor intent on purchasing the Cullrothes Distillery by any means necessary.

Schoolgirl Jessie, who briefly assists Innes in the pub, is trying to get the grades to escape to the mainland, while Grandpa counts the days left in his life. There are many weaves to the tapestry of this tale, and Gillespie succinctly captures the close-knit nature of these types of communities.

Gillespie describes Cullrothes as being akin to many villages in this particular area of Scotland. It’s one of those places where the mountains are overwhelming and the loch freezes over in winter, stunning yet sombre in its duality. A place with only one road in and out. We all know those islands, where we endure long storms, furious midges, and dreadful phone signals, right? Let’s not forget the tourist trap distillery amongst it all. The police are compromised, the journalists deceptive, and the seemingly innocent folk of Cullrothes have agendas, motives, and secrets. We as readers are as keen to unearth these as we are invested in the destiny of the village and its distillery.

The Mash House is a brilliant debut work, a page-turner of a thriller which motivates the reader to inhale more of its amber beauty and malicious characters, none of which are without their own hidden skeletons (some more literally than others). A confident first novel, it’s intriguing to wonder what Gillespie will come up with next. He fleshes out the characters just enough to leave the reader invested; the four hundred-plus pages seem appropriate. Gillespie’s descriptions of the close-knit community, nestled within what can be an isolated way of life, are vivid and visceral, and will spur you to read on.

The Mash House is out now, published by Unbound

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