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Neil Gunn: The Key of the Chest

Gunn wrote several stories that later became novels. The Sea, for example, became Morning Tide, while The Man Who Came Back became The Drinking Well. This novel had its origin as the story The Dead Seaman, which first appeared in the The Scots Magazine in 1931 and has since been republished, along with The Man Who Came Back,in the collection The Man Who Came Back, published in 1991.

The plot in both story and novel is simple. Charlie and Dougald are two brothers who live in an out of the way cottage. One night there is a storm. Dougald is in the local village and is persuaded to spend the night there. Charlie, hearing a cry, goes down to the shore where he sees a drowning sailor, whom he rescues and takes back to the cottage. Unfortunately, the sailor – a Swede – dies. Dougald returns and then immediately goes to report the matter to the local policeman. The matter seems straightforward. The sailor has died from injuries received during the storm and his chest is intact and locked. However, when the local doctor examines the body, he immediately determines that the sailor has been strangled. It may have been an accident and, as there is no proof, the responsible official – the Procurator Fiscal – cannot proceed. However, when Dougald goes off and returns, drunk – on the Sabbath no less – with a flock of sheep he almost certainly could not have afforded, suspicions of foul play are aroused.

The story of the dead seaman seems to come and go in the novel as Gunn focuses on a few key sub-plots. The first one is Charlie’s relationship with Flora. Charlie earlier had gone off to college in Edinburgh as had Flora. There they start a relationship. Flora is warned off but, when she is caught illegally exiting the college at night, she is expelled. Charlie goes off to South Africa for a year but then returns to his brother but, despite the fact that they are near neighbours, Charlie and Flora only renew their relationship after the start of the novel. Flora’s father is the local minister – fierce, cruel but troubled – and he clearly does not approve of their relationship. When the couple elopes and is apparently drowned at sea, he nearly breaks down. The other key sub-plot concerns the local landlord, Michael Sandeman. Sandeman was a disappointment to his family and had been exiled to their Scottish house, much to his joy. (The house and land, as Gunn tells us more than once, are on land taken from the local people years before.) Sandeman, during the course of the novel, gradually establishes good relations with the locals. Previously, he spent his time only with his friend Gwynn and the local doctor (who, incidentally, is also in love with Flora but there is no doubt earthy passion is going to win against intellect any day in a Gunn novel.)

Gunn is now at the peak of his powers. The tension between the minister and his daughter, the passionate but somewhat dark relationship of Charlie and Flora, the intellect versus good honest earthiness, the two key storms, the economic situation of the local populace and the heavy, gloomy religion hanging over them – all of these we have seen in earlier novels but he is now able to skillfully weave them into a powerful novel which, while more or less satisfactorily solving the plot elements, clearly shows us a society in turmoil.

Publishing history

First published 1945 by Faber and Faber