When a teenage boy is found dead in the river Tossy everyone in the tight-knit village of Coedafon assumes that he accidentally drowned trying to retrieve his snagged fishing tackle. When this is quickly confirmed by a hasty Coroner’s enquiry that would seem to be the end of it: the unfortunate death of, it turns out, a disliked and unpopular boy. But…not so for Meg Marsden and her scarred War-veteran husband Andy, recently moved to the village to convalesce and indulge their love of fly fishing. For them, something doesn’t add up. And so begins what becomes a gripping whodunnit.
Foul Hooked, written by Islay Manley, is set in a thinly disguised version of Brockweir, the ancient village on the river Wye at the edge of the Forest of Dean. Though not exact in every detail the fictional village where nearly all of the book’s events play out replicates the basic topography and some of the places of the real village and its surroundings. The author and her husband Herbert lived in Brockweir after the War, and like the book’s fictional sleuths they too enjoyed fishing on the Wye. Herbert was employed as a Wye valley river bailiff. After his death sometime in the 1950’s Islay moved away, presumably only then writing this fabulous, and foul, story set there.
Islay, a graduate of St Andrews’ University, was already a published author when she wrote Foul Hooked but her only book to date had been her non-fiction Field and Forest: an introduction to the lives of plants (1955). Complete with her own illustration it was based on her own observations of plants and trees in the Wye valley. It was well-received being “strongly recommended” by the Belfast Telegraph (2nd April 1955, p4b), whilst commended by another reviewer as succeeding in, “showing that plants are as alive and interesting as are animals, birds and fish” (The Fifeshire Advertiser, 19th February 1955, p6d). Whether or not she attempted to also get her whodunnit published during her lifetime is not known, but regardless, her unpublished manuscript remained just that until family of the late author recently decided it was just too good to not make it into print.
Foul Hooked really is an incredibly well-written book, engaging the reader from start to finish. Her nephews David and Richard Munro, who both had a hand in bringing the book to print, recall that Islay was an avid reader of Agatha Christie and that comes as no surprise. Islay’s fiction writing is certainly on a par with work from that master of the whodunnit. The pacing of the plot is fantastic, with gripping twists and turns that never feel overwrought or unrealistic in either their timing or what happens. From the start, of course, you will have your theories as to who did what to whom, and which are the ‘good’ and who the ‘bad’ actors in the plot, but like any other really good whodunnit this one will keep you guessing to the end.
The action largely plays out within and closely around the village itself. Confined in this way, and with nosey neighbours, village gossip, grudges and suspicions held, the book builds a wonderful sense of claustrophobia felt by reader and protagonists alike. You will have to ask present-day residents of Brockweir if you want to know how much that reflects life in the village today!
One thing that local readers may find somewhat discomforting in the book are the disparaging comments made (by the characters) about both rural life and rural people. At one point, hearing the virtuosic piano playing of her friend, Meg reflects that it is “really quite wasted in this country dump”, whilst at another point describing where they live as a, “closed, inbred little community”. These ways of thinking about and describing rural communities were certainly not unusual amongst metropolitan people at the time and they are of course the words of a fictional character. There is nothing to suggest that these reflect the author’s own assessment of country life and communities. Either way, the lead protagonists, Meg and her husband, are so thoroughly likeable and engaging that occasional remarks such as these can, by this reader anyway, be very easily forgiven and in no way impinge on the enjoyment of the book (wherever you live!)
There is much to enjoy in this book for the general reader, as well as for any whodunnit aficionados, and if you or anyone in your life is a fly-fishing enthusiast you really must get a copy as there is some lovely descriptive detail in that regard.
Thank goodness this fine piece of writing has been brought from obscurity brought into the light of day. Now we know the name of Islay Manley: botanist, illustrator, and writer of a brilliant whodunnit.
Foul Hooked (2022) by Islay Manley is published by Brown Dog Books, available online at £8.99 and as e-book at £3.99.