It’s business as usual for time-travelling Tom Afflick when he comes back to Edinburgh to visit his mum and her boyfriend, Hamish, for part of his summer holidays.
Only this time, after he has a small altercation with Hamish at the National Museum of Scotland resulting in yet another bumped head, Tom is transported back not to 1645 but 1828, and finds himself the guest of two men named Bill and Will during a spate of mysterious disappearances. Amid the revelation that Bill and Will are the notorious Burke and Hare, Tom helps get them arrested while at the same time seeming to solve the mystery of the hoard of tiny coffins found on Arthur’s Seat in 1836 (and which can still be seen at the NMS). Along the way, he manages to escape the clutches of the unexplained apparition of 17th-century pseudo-doctor William McSweeney, the main villain from Caveney’s previous novel, Crow Boy.
It’s yet another fun romp through history and Edinburgh. I took delight in discovering that the character of Jamie was based on a real person and not just artistic licence – and, of course, rather relished the scene at the end in which Tom stands up to the bullying Hamish.
Whilst more historically accurate than Crow Boy, however, Seventeen Coffins reproduces some of its predecessor’s flaws, as well as much of its plot, and seems to be written under the assumption that the reader is not familiar with the first book in the series. It makes one wonder: is this really a sequel, or a remake? This is further exemplified by Tom not having learned anything from his previous trip back in time: he still goes about in his modern-day clothes and waving his mobile phone around. Only this time round, he does the change the future slightly: one of his new-found friends, Catriona McCallum, makes it as a novelist, thanks to Tom’s encouragement (and sharing of his Manchester vernacular). She is now known for writing a science-fiction book predating Jules Verne by decades and has her portrait hanging in the NMS. Odd, considering that after Tom left the ‘miraculous’ antibiotics he used to save lives during the plague back in 1645, this resulted in no changes in the future, or even a passing mention in the historical record.
I think my main disappointment is that Tom’s adventures can be read as happening entirely in his mind. Each adventure is the result of a knock on the head. The photograph Tom took of Morag in Crow Boy has faded from his mobile, and Tom’s other incongruous, futuristic actions barely seem to affect the future – or the past either, come to think of it. In short, there is no evidence of Tom having actually been back in time; and even the vile McSweeney’s trans-historical pursuit could just be the manifestation of a subconscious struggle against Hamish. This was all perfectly fine with Crow Boy; but now that Tom has been mentioned in the dedication of one of Catriona’s novels, I feel Caveney needs to make it a bit clearer whether Tom is actually travelling back in time, or if it is a case of John Simm in Life on Mars.
It would be particularly interesting if, in a future adventure, Tom were transported back to some time after the birth of the camera in 1840.