The Dark of Summer – Eric Linklater

Tony Chisholm, wounded in the retreat from Dunkirk, is an Army Welfare Officer travelling around Britain until he’s fit for active service. His knowledge of Scotland & especially the Shetlands, leads to him being sent to the Faroe islands on the trail of possible Nazi collaborators. The Northern Isles are very close to Norway where the Nazi regime has taken hold, helped by men like Vidkun Quisling. British naval bases at remote locations like Scapa Flow could be in danger if their defences were penetrated.

Arriving on the islands, he’s told of the strange behaviour of two men, Torur & Bomlo, & of a boat with five Norwegian refugees that came ashore one night. Or were there six men on board? The five acknowledged passengers all died without being able to tell the authorities anything. However, Torur’s neighbour (jealous because Torur has seduced his wife), talks of both men being seen with bottles of alcohol. Alcohol is strictly rationed so this, plus stories of a stranger seen on their property, seems suspicious. Chisholm had met the suspects on a previous trip & is soon in their confidence. Chisholm soon decides that Torur & Bomlo have done nothing more than take advantage of circumstances but there’s another man, Mungo Wishart, who could be more of a threat. There was a sixth man on the boat but he has frozen to death, tied up in in Torur’s outhouse & Chisholm, with the help of Dick Silver, captain of the trawler he’s travelling on, comes up with an audacious plan to expose the real traitor, if there is one.

Silver decides that they should take the frozen corpse with them to Shetland where Wishart lives & try to get him to identify it. The trawler is caught in a ferocious storm on the way & by the time they arrive, Chisholm is exhausted & feeling the effects of his wound. Near collapse as he tries to locate Wishart, he’s found & taken in by Wishart’s two teenage children, Gudrun & Olaf, & meets Mungo himself that night. Mungo’s initial suspicion is overcome & he talks openly about his view of the world although nothing he says strikes Chisholm as treacherous. Silver’s plan is a disaster. They invite Wishart to the trawler for drinks & confront him witrh the corpse. he shows no sign of recognizing the man & is furious at what he sees as Chisholm’s betrayal of his hospitality. However, that same night, he commits suicide by taking cyanide after burning his papers.

All this is only the beginning of this compelling but dark story. We follow Chisholm through his subsequent career in the Army. He fights in the Middle East, North Africa & Italy then in the 1950s, in Korea. However, the story is really about guilt & remorse. The story, narrated by Chisholm, begins in the mid 1950s. Chisholm is living on Shetland with his wife & he’s completely happy. Walking near the site of a new road, they discover the body of a man buried in the peat. His clothing suggests that this is Old Dandy Pitcairn, victim of a feud between his family & the Wisharts in the 18th century. When Chisholm met Mungo Wishart, his daughter gave him a book to read, the family history of the Wisharts & of the feud. The repercussions of the feud were felt by the descendants of both families for many years.

Chisholm is a tormented man in 1940. His brother, Peter, was killed in the war, shot by his commanding officer for cowardice in the face of the enemy. He’s unhappily married, separated from his wife who has been unfaithful to him. He feels guilty about Mungo’s suicide until he learns that he was a traitor after all. Then, he feels remorseful about the plight of his wife & children. When he later meets Olaf Wishart fighting in Korea, he feels responsible for him although the Wishart children never blamed him for their father’s death. Chisholm is a loner, good at his job but not willing to get close to anyone. The story has so many strands from the 18th century to the 1950s. It’s difficult to write about it coherently. The description of the storm & of the scenery of the Islands is beautifully done.

I also love a book that widens my vocabulary! I read The Dark of Summer as an ebook so I had instant access to a dictionary which was very useful. I learnt several new words including flensing (slicing the flesh from a whale carcass), elver (a young eel) & anabasis (a rare word meaning a military advance into the interior of a country). The Dark of Summer is a difficult book to summarize. It begins not unlike John Buchan’s Mr Standfast, which I read recently. Then, it turns from an exciting wartime thriller into an examination of the emotional cost of war, a love story & an 18th century historical story as well. I’m very pleased the Bloomsbury Reader have made The Dark of Summer available again.

6 thoughts on “The Dark of Summer – Eric Linklater

  1. I read this a few years ago and really liked it. The 18th century bit is basically based on the story of the Giffords of Busta (Busta house where they lived is now a hotel and allegedly haunted). I can't remember if The Dark of Summer explicitly mentions the Shetland Bus but I think you would find David Howarth's 'The Shetland Bus' really interesting, it's a cracking story, all true, and not so well known as it could be. (Good for an Anne Cleeves fan too)

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  2. I really enjoyed the 18th century story although I thought it was an odd addition to the 20th century story. The book was certainly an interesting mixture of genres. The Bus wasn't mentioned but the Howarth book looks interesting & it's in print so I'll put it on my wishlist.

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  3. I think he did write children's books among many other genres. I don't think very much has been in print but Bloomsbury have just reprinted quite a few of his novels.

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  4. I have lots more on my ereader &, I agree, they're very tempting. Ann Bridge has been my favourite discovery but all the books I've read have been excellent.

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