“Falling, yes I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again.” So went the lyrics of one of my favourite Beatles songs, but the unfortunate victim who features in the opening pages of this excellent police procedural from James Oswald has little to sing about. He plummets through the chill air of an Edinburgh winter early dawn. His descent is broken violently and catastrophically by the unyielding branches of a tree. Had the ten year-old boy out walking under the tree with his dog been an expert on Shakespeare’s Roman plays, he might have said, “Oh, what a fall was there, my countrymen!” Instead, he is interviewed as the only witness to one of the more bizarre crimes ever investigated by Detective Inspector Tony McLean.
As the pathologists – literally – piece together the evidence they conclude that the shattered remains in the tree is that all that is left of Bill Chalmers, a copper who was not so much bent as tangled and doubled up on himself. After surviving a jail sentence for his misdeeds, he used his connections and his wits to found a drug rehabilitation charity, which drew immense support from the community.
Now, his good deeds are over. His remains are laid out on a mortuary table. The lad who witnessed Chalmers’ final fall from grace is, himself, remotely connected to Edinburgh gangland gentry. His late father was Tommy Johnston, a club owner and provider of female flesh to the gentry. Johnston was shot dead years earlier, but although there was no shortage of potential suspects, his killer has remained unidentified and at large.
There are so many Detective Inspectors walking the corridors of British crime fiction that to succeed, each must have something different, something which will grab the readers’ attention. McLean is, thanks to a serendipitous bequest from a distant relative, materially far better off than his constabulary colleagues. Despite his ability to buy the flashiest of upmarket motors, he insists on driving an aged Alfa Romeo. He lives in a large house, alone except for his neighbour’s cat, and his on-off girlfriend, Emma. He is not in the first flush of youth, certainly, but he has few vices outside of a perfectly natural love of the warmth and texture of obscure single malt whiskies.
McLean’s quest for answers to explain the dramatic death of Chalmers is hampered by his ever increasing suspicion that if he were to find the truth, it would implicate several serving members of Police Scotland, and these would be men way, way above his own pay grade. As the worst snow for a decade brings chaos to the streets of Scotland’s capital, McLean finds himself the target of not only the weather, but powerful members of an international crime syndicate.
If there is a tiny weakness of the novel, it is its reliance on the backstory, as McLean eventually homes in on the culprits. We are made aware of the resourcefulness and malevolence of the person behind the mayhem – the enigmatic Mrs Saifre. The problem is that there are broad hints of how McLean has suffered at her hands in previous episodes, but we are left having to take this on trust.
This reservation aside, I can recommend Written In Bones to anyone who likes an intense police procedural, with just a dash of the supernatural, lavish helpings of atmosphere, evocative landscape descriptions and beautifully drawn characters. A few words about the author. James Oswald has a day job. That job is probably the most demanding of any occupations, as James is farmer in Fife, where he looks after pedigree Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep. Written In Bones is published by Michael Joseph and is out now.