2020 Grateful 17: Gerald Hammond

My dead-people’s dinner table has had an extra seat added to it, somewhat surprisingly as I’ve only just found out that Gerald Hammond is no longer with us. I’ve spent a blissful three weeks or so reading the 13 novels in the Three Oaks series written by the Scottish author. Not believing in coincidence, the day I finished the final book, I read an article in The Guardian about the COVID rule of six not applying to shooting sports in the UK. The headline would normally have been as far as I’d have read, but having spent so much time with John Cunningham (Hammond’s protagonist), I’m giving more thought to game shooting and what’s behind it.

Cunningham runs Three Oaks kennels, not far from Dundee. He breeds and trains Springer Spaniels. I’d not known about the Labrador vs Spaniel thing, the former being a retriever, the latter both springing (i.e., flushing) and retrieving. I’d never given much thought to what the springer part of Springer Spaniel actually meant but can now talk with some minor authority on the subject (13 novels will do that for you).  Hammond’s love of dogs and guns, of shoots and wildfowling, of Scotland and its people shines through. And although Cunningham takes the lead in the narration (for 11 of the 13 novels) it’s his wife Beth who was blessed with the brain that solves the various murders they come across.

Hammond uses Cunningham as a medium through which to argue in favour of the sport. He makes a very credible argument, especially when pitting pheasants reared on the moors with chickens reared in a battery. The care the various keepers take in rearing pheasants for the shooting season is remarkable. The planning that goes into creating the right environment for them to live was a surprise. The battle between the farmers and the geese, the rabbits, and the foxes is thoughtfully explained and nothing shot ever goes to waste.

“It also brings out how the pheasants and ducks are released, gradually, to grow on under wild conditions and it compares their journey to the table with that of farmed chickens.” (from “A Shocking Affair” by Gerald Hammond)

He also speaks about dogs being raised and trained to do what they were born to do vs those bred for show. It’s clear where his sympathies lay. Again, another divide I was unaware of.

With a fondness for the various Scottish dialects, some of the dialogue is impenetrable but the fun I had in trying to decipher it was immeasurable. One thing I’ve not been able to figure out – and perhaps my Scottish friends can help here:

Somebody’s pet snuffs it from a surfeit of chocolate creams and they immediately want to know who poisoned the little ber – beggar. (from “Dogsbody” by Gerald Hammond)

What were they going to say before they changed it to beggar??? What’s the Scottish cuss word that I’m missing??? It’s driving me crazy not knowing.

Perhaps Hammond was writing about an idyllic world that once was. (Hammond died in 2015 and his last Three Oaks novel was published in 2002.) But he makes a good case for it. It’s a wonderful series of novels from a man born in 1926 and who published his first book in 1965. A prolific, much-reviewed writer and architect by trade, he retired in 1982 to write full time.

His long-time friend and fellow author Paul Bishop, writing on his death, captures it beautifully:

His books were not long tedious, padded, thrillers. Instead they are almost of another age, ingenious plots, characters with whom you want to spend time, and a world to which you eagerly anticipate returning.

I’m grateful to have discovered Hammond and the Three Oaks kennels. The time I spent with them was wonderful. I’ve just started on his second series starring itinerant gunsmith Keith Calder. Also set in Scotland, this 23-book series should take me through to the end of next month. The joys!

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