DI Tony McLean is an Edinburgh copper who is just a tad different from your standard tick-box fictional Detective Inspector. Yes, he works long hours, to the detriment of his home life, and doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with his superiors. Yes, he is occasionally given to special insights into crimes and criminals and, of course, he always gets his man (or woman). McLean, though, is something of a breed apart. His personal background is, well, unusual. After unhappy schooldays at a private school he hated, he has inherited money and property which make him a wealthy man after his parents were killed in a plane crash. He is gifted – or cursed – with a heightened sense of perception which may, or may not be, occult in nature. Despite his unwillingness to come to terms with this, he has an interesting friendship with a transvestite spirit medium called Madam Rose, who should be a comic character, but is anything but that.
I should add, at this point, that James Oswald (left) is not your regulation writer of crime fiction novels. He has a rather demanding ‘day job’, which is running a 350 acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep. His entertaining Twitter feed is, therefore, just as likely to contain details of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ obstetrics as it is to reveal insights into the art of writing great books. But I digress. I don’t know James Oswald well enough to say whether or not he puts anything of himself into the character of Tony McLean, but the scenery and routine of McLean’s life is nothing like that of his creator.
McLean is going about his daily business when he is witness to a tragedy. A tanker carrying slurry is diverted through central Edinburgh by traffic congestion on the bypass. The driver has a heart attack, and the lorry becomes a weapon of mass destruction as it ploughs into a crowded bus stop. McLean is the first police officer on the scene, and he is immediately aware that whatever the lorry was carrying, it certainly wasn’t harmless – albeit malodorous – sewage waste. People whose bodies have not been shattered by thirty tonnes of hurtling steel are overcome and burned by a terrible toxic sludge which floods from the shattered vehicle.
The police are desperate to reassure the Edinburgh public that this is not a terrorist attack, but a tragic accident, a fateful coming together of coincidences. McLean and his team are tasked with the grim business of identifying all those who died in the crash, but also with investigating the company which owned the lorry, and what on earth the chemical cocktail was that literally burned the flesh and bones of those who came into contact with it.
As McLean starts to peel back the layers of deception and corruption which are wrapped around the truth about the disaster, he senses a sinister element in the case which exudes the stench of pure evil, far beyond that of the already grim death toll. His own personal life – most crucially involving his partner Emma, carrying their unborn child – becomes entangled with the case. McLean’s investigations turn over a heavy stone which reveals myriad guilty and repulsive things scuttling around as they are exposed to the light.
Sometimes titles of crime and thriller novels seem to have been chosen more to catch the eye of potential purchasers rather than for their relationship to the plot, but in this case those three words are chillingly apt. This disturbing story may start off as a relatively straightforward police procedural. All the familiar elements are there: the internal rivalries between officers, the bustling incident room, decent men and women trying to keep a lid on the thousand misdemeanours a big city throws up every week. But. But. A word to the wise. No, scrap that, and replace it with a much more suitable phrase – borrowed from a nightmarish MR James ghost story from 1925 – A Warning to the Curious. I have to tell you that The Gathering Dark is superbly written and gripping from the first page to the last, but it turns hellishly black and may trouble your dreams.
Click the link to read the Fully Booked review of an earlier DI Tony McLean novel, Written In Bones. The Gathering Dark is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin, and will be available on 25th January 2018.
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