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Cold As The Grave

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best police procedural

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While police procedurals, at least in recent years, don’t tend to attract as much publicity as, say, domestic noir (or books with ’Girl’ in the title) they are the solid and dependable backbone of crime fiction. A true cynic might say that the police procedural scene is a roomfull of Detective Inspectors moaning about their desk-bound box-ticking superior officers, but in the hands of writers who are prepared to take a few risks and move away from the norm, a good police novel is hard to beat.

tkim-coverThere are some very special Irish crime writers these days. Some mine the uniquely bitter and bleak seam of Belfast, with its raw and recent memories, while further south the city of Dublin, where “the girls are so pretty”, has its fair share of malcontents and evil doers. Olivia Kiernan and her Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan were new to me, but The Killer In Me was a beguiling read. I called it “dark, complex, but full of compassion.” and the story of Sheehan’s search for a killer, while trying to decide if a newly released killer is a wrongly convicted media cause célèbre or a murderous con artist, is beautifully told.

tbwfStaying in Ireland, it has to be said that Jo Spain is ridiculously talented. She has created a bankable stock character in the affable Dublin copper Tom Reynolds, but this has not stopped her from writing such brilliant stand-alones as The Confession. In reviewing her books I have used adjectives like ‘bravura’, ‘intense’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘mesmerising’, so will gather that I am a fan. It was good to welcome back Tom Reynolds this year in The Boy Who Fell. On one level this is a firecracker of a whodunnit, and Spain’s ability to misdirect the reader and lead us – Pied Piper-like – in the wrong direction, is proudly displayed. On a more reflective level her observations on moneyed Dublin society are sharp and salutary, as Reynolds tries to discover why a teenager died while partying with his privileged and privately educated friends.

CATGVulnerability as a character trait is perhaps more common in British fictional coppers that their American counterparts, and few fit that bill quite like James Oswald’s Edinburgh detective Tony McLean. Cold As The Grave is his ninth outing, and his quest for the truth behind a series of corpses found in strange locations in the old city brings the frayed edges of his character into focus. He has always had an awareness of the fact that there are “more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Oswald never goes full-on supernatural, but McLean is ever more aware that the solution to the Edinburgh deaths may lie beyond the dry pages of the Police Scotland training manual.

SleepwalkerIn The Sleepwalker, Joseph Knox reintroduced us to his troubled Manchester Detective Constable, Aidan Waits, who we first met in Sirens (2017) and The Smiling Man (2018). To say that Waits’s Manchester is dystopian is rather like saying that there can be a certain frisson between supporters of City and United. In The Sleepwalker it rarely seems to be daylight as the pallid and pinched faces of drug abusers and petty crimInals are caught in the flickering neon lights of the late night clubs and drinking dens. Waits and his loathsome immediate superior Sergeant Sutcliffe have been tasked with waiting at the bedside of a dying serial killer, in the hope that his final breath will reveal the burial place of one of his victims. Inevitably, everything goes bloodily wrong, and when the dust settles, and the final autopsy is done, Knox asks us – perhaps, maybe, possibly – to bid Waits a fond farewell.

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Click this link for a full review of Their Little Secret.

COLD AS THE GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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This is a welcome return to the world of Edinburgh copper Tony McLean. He is now Chief Inspector, and to quote, appropriately enough, the Scottish Play, he feels he is dressed in ‘borrow’d robes’. On his desk are small mountains of files, reports, initiatives and consultation documents: beyond the door of the nick are thieves, rapists and murderers. McLean knows where his heart is leading him, and it is out away from his desk and onto the mean streets.

When McLean uses the excuse of a potential clash between rival demonstrators to desert his office, he discovers a corpse abandoned in a derelict cellar. As the technicians and medics swarm round the body it seems obvious that the remains – of a young girl – have been there for some considerable time. When, however, the pathologist is able to take a closer look under the spotlight above the mortuary slab, he comes to the astonishing conclusion that the girl has only been dead for a matter of days, despite her desiccated and leathery skin.

indexCold As The Grave is the ninth novel in the Tony McLean series, but fine writers – and Oswald is up there with the very best – make sure that it is never too late to come to the party. For anyone new to the series, McLean is something of an individual. Due to an inheritance, he is exceedingly wealthy, but has a modest lifestyle and chooses to remain a police officer. He has a long-standing ‘significant other’ in Emma Baird, but the previous novel, The Gathering Dark, (click to read the review) ended with her having a disastrous miscarriage. McLean is a fine detective, but he is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an awareness of the supernatural. The two characters in the books who operate in this sphere are Madame Rose, a bizarre but benign transvestite clairvoyant, and the considerably more sinister Mrs Saifre. She is, on the surface, merely a very rich and influential owner of newspapers and media outlets, but McLean senses that there is something existentially evil and elemental behind her smooth corporate image.

Back in Cold As The Grave, more bodies are found, each apparently mummified in the same way as the poor child found in the tenement cellar. McLean makes an important connection between the deaths and the rising tide of people trafficking which has hit the city. Girls and young women from the war zones of the Middle East are being brought in and, at best, set to work for a pittance in local factories but, at worst, forced into prostitution.

With his bosses exasperated at the amount of time he is spending away from his paper shuffling duties, McLean’s investigation reaches a crucial fork in the road. To the left is the grim possibility that someone at the heart of the trafficking gang is using some kind of deadly serum, derived from snake venom, to carry out murders and threaten other victims: to the right, however improbable, is the presence of some kind of evil djinn reincarnated from Aramaic legend and folklore. McLean knows that following the road to the right will lead only to ridicule by both his superior officers and those who work for him, but he has learned to trust his instincts, even if they terrify him.

joDoes McLean follow his head or his heart? The road to the left or the right? Cold As The Grave is a brilliant police procedural, but there is more – so much more – to it. For those who love topographical atmosphere Oswald (right) recreates a wintry Edinburgh that makes you want to turn up the central heating by a couple of notches; for readers drawn by suggestions of the supernatural there is enough here to induce a shiver or three, while making sure the bedroom light remains on while you sleep. The sheer decency and common humanity of Tony McLean – and the finely detailed portraits of the people he works with – will satisfy the reader who demands authentic and credible characterisation. Cold As The Grave is published by Wildfire/Headline and will be out on 7th February.

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