The Suicide Skull

Written by Susan McDuffie
Review by Valerie Adolph

Euphemia McPhee, a young woman who has the Second Sight and knows the ancient skills of healing with herbs, lives alone in a cave in western Scotland in 1396. She leaves immediately when she learns from a messenger that her illegitimate four-year-old son, being fostered by a noble family across the water, is ill. She takes plants and cures for the child, but he becomes even more worryingly ill with ‘the falling sickness’.

She suspects poison and removes the boy to a remote healing spring. Soon afterwards, she discovers the body of a young woman drowned in a nearby stream. She suspects murder and finds herself not only trying to discover who is poisoning her son but also trying to identify the young woman’s killer.

The story moves along at a comfortably fast pace, reflecting the lawless nature of Scotland during a period of feuding lairds and churchmen. The characters are drawn with both empathy and an eye to the realities of the time and place. Euphemia is a mother worried almost to distraction but still able to understand and follow the complex machinations of those who might harm her son.

The author writes with clarity about the isles of western Scotland, the lives of both lairds and common people and reliance on boats, tides, and weather for transportation. This, together with the emotional setting—for instance, Euphemia’s feelings as she sees her son tended by foster parents and his acceptance of them as his true parents while viewing Euphemia as a stranger—adds depth and texture to the novel.

This is an immersive novel on many levels, with hints of possible future romance, ever-present danger and a cast of warmly realistic Scots making the best of a difficult land in a difficult time.