He’s published 23 works of non-fiction. He’s edited 27 works of the Scottish writer George MacDonald, whose books had such an impact on C.S. Lewis. He’s edited five works of Harold Bell Wright and Ralph Connor. (Wright was the first American to sell more than one million copies of a novel, and the first American writer to earn more than $1 million. I’ve read only one of his works, The Shepherd of the Hills. Connor was a Canadian novelist.) Phillips has also co-authored 13 novels with his wife Judith Pella, and written more than 40 original novels.
My introduction to his writing happened some three decades ago, when the edited versions of George MacDonald’s books began to be published. While the books were widely popular in 19th century Britain, they contained large chunks of Scottish dialect and detailed descriptions that wouldn’t work as well with modern readers. I read quite a few of the novels, chiefly on the knowledge that C.S. Lewis loved them.
I also knew that Phllips was especially fond of writing trilogies, except they’re less trilogies and more three-part novels. One of his novels called The Inheritance popped up in an ad. Having been surprised once years ago, when an author published book one of a supposed trilogy that turned out to be a three-volume novel without explanation or disclaimer, I checked. And, yes, The Inheritance was the first installment of a three-part novel.
It’s a story about a fictitious island in The Shetlands called Whale’s Reef. For centuries the island has been largely owned and managed by the laird of the Tulloch clan. The current laird, Macgregor Tulloch, dies without a will, although most on the island believe his chief and a great-nephew, David Tulloch, would become the new laird. But complications with the estate arise, and another great-nephew, fisherman Hardy Tulloch, makes a claim. David is generally loved by the people of Whale’s Reef and Hardy is rightfully seen as something of a bully.
But it turns out that there’s someone with a stronger direct claim, a young American named Loni Ford. She works at an investment firm in Washington, D.C., and is enjoying early success. Raised by her Quaker grandparents, she knows little about her own parents or the families they came from. As it turns out, her mother is the direct descendant of “the old laird,” Macgregor’s father.
And complicating all of this is the designs of a rather stereotyped, flamboyant Texan who’s determined to gain control of Whale’s Reef to build an oil refinery. That will likely mean the end of the island’s fishing and wool industries which employ almost all of its people.
Phillips has a gift for telling a good story. I started reading skeptically – I was suspicious that a three-part novel could hold my attention. Well, the skeptic was wrong. I’m hooked. The second in the “Secret of the Shetlands” series is The Cottage (reviewed next week) and the third is The Legacy, just published July 4 and to be reviewed the week after The Cottage.
The Inheritance is the start of what promises to be a great family saga.
Photograph: The island of Foula in the Shetland Islands, via Shetland.org.