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In 'The Devil's Footprints', mysteries old, new collide

Everyone has secrets, and a random crime in a Scottish town dredges them up.

By Vikram Johri, Special to the Times
Published January 6, 2008


John Burnside's latest novel, The Devil's Footprints, is a classic Jekyll and Hyde story, without the physical transformation wrought in the original. It is set in the haunting background of the Scottish countryside, a template that offers immediate rewards to a writer of mystery, and Burnside exploits it to full effect here.

The fishing town of Coldhaven is known to the outside world for the "devil's footprints," marks left after a particularly snowy night one December long ago. But to the residents of this sleepy town, personal tales of passion and failure are a dime a dozen, ready to be picked up and regurgitated.

The book's narrator, Michael Gardiner, lives at the furthest point of the shore in his parents' house. His parents underwent a tragedy in Coldhaven due to their "different" ways. Michael himself harbors a few secrets, revealing early on that he killed, albeit not intentionally, a bully during childhood.

That bully's sister is the latest talk of the town. One fine morning, Moira Birnie woke up, packed her two little sons and 14-year-old daughter in the car, drove to a point, asked her daughter to alight, drove ahead and burned herself and her sons in the car. Why did she do it? And why was the daughter allowed to get away?

Michael is gripped by this random crime, not only because it provides grist to the gossip mill, but also because he has a hunch that he is the father of Hazel, daughter of Moira, with whom he had a passionate affair long ago. With so many ghosts to keep him company, it is hardly surprising that Michael turns his quiet existence upside down to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Burnside weaves the personal trauma of Michael's realization with the folkloric strand of Coldhaven's dark history to tease out the legend behind the devil's footprints. The perfidy of the people contrasted with the calm beauty of the landscape is evoked with great skill.

Vikram Johri, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, is a writer in New Delhi, India.


The Devil's Footprints
By John Burnside
Doubleday, 240 pages, $23.95


[Last modified January 3, 2008, 10:43:56]

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