Tom Affleck’s first time-slip adventure, Crow Boy, took him back to 1645, to an Edinburgh ravaged by bubonic plague, where he met the evil plague doctor, William McSweeny. In Seventeen Coffins, Tom goes back in time again, to Edinburgh in 1828, where he makes some new and sinister enemies. Unable to get back to his own time, Tom finds lodgings in Tanner’s Close, in the home of the infamous body snatchers, Burke and Hare. Knowing he has no family and few friends, the murderers decide Tom will be their next victim. To make matters worse, Tom realises that the terrifying McSweeny has followed him through time and is stalking him through the tenements and slums of the city.
At the heart of the story are seventeen small wooden coffins, complete with small dressed-doll corpses, which were found on Arthur’s Seat in 1836. Only eight of the original seventeen survived, and they are now on display in the National Museum of Scotland. Philip Caveney brings the coffins into Tom’s story and in doing so offers one possible explanation for who made them and why.
Seventeen Coffins is a well written and exciting book. The story is a blend of fact and fiction, and it brings to life an interesting period of Scottish history. The story is very dark at times, but there are touches of humour to lighten the mood. Tom is a likeable hero, and there are enough details of the cold, squalor, unpleasant food and foul smells of 19th-century Edinburgh to appeal to boys and girls of 9+. The dialogue is very modern, which lessens the historical feel at times, but I doubt this will spoil the story for younger readers. I am sure we will meet Tom again in further time-slip adventures.