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James Oswald

BURY THEM DEEP . . .Between the covers

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James Oswald’s Edinburgh copper Tony McLean is something of a fixture in the crime fiction firmament these days, and Bury Them Deep is the tenth in the series. For those readers picking up one of his cases for the first time, a little of his back story might be helpful. He is based in Edinburgh and now, of course, works for Police Scotland. He was (unhappily) educated in English independent schools thanks to his wealthy family, some of whose riches he has inherited, thus making him ‘a man of means’. He lives in an old and impossibly roomy house, left to him by his grandmother. He has a fragile relationship with partner Emma, and it is fair to say that their life together has been punctuated by both drama and tragedy. McLean drives a very plush Alfa Romeo, enjoys an occasional glass of cask-strength single malt whisky and, aside from his instinct for police work, has been known to be susceptible to stimuli and influences that are not, as Hamlet remarked, “dreamt of in your philosophy.” After many successful cases, he is now Detective Chief Inspector McLean, but if his superiors imagine he will settle for a life behind a desk, they are very much mistaken.

BTDAnya Renfrew is a rather dowdy and dull police civilian worker who seems devoted to her job, which is mastering the many databases which keep investigations fed with information. She has never had a day off in her life, and so when she goes missing it is considered rather unusual. Her mother is a former – and legendary – police superintendent, but Grace Ramsay is now old and infirm, living in a care home. Police are never more active than when investigating actual or possible harm to one of their own, and when McLean searches Anya’s house, what he finds hidden in her wardrobe indicates that Ms Renfrew’s private life was more exotic – and dangerous – than colleagues might have imagined.

A chance bit of tomfoolery by two schoolboys, bored out of their minds during the long hot summer holiday, leads not only to the discovery of Anya Renfrew’s car, but a moorland wildfire of tinder-dry heather. When the fire service manage to douse the flames, they make a disturbing discovery. Bones. Human bones. Bones that the post-mortem investigation reveals have been deliberately stripped of their flesh.

McLean’s professional life already has one big complication. A five-times serial killer called Norman Bale is in a secure mental hospital, thanks to McLean’s diligence and bravery. Now, he asks to speak to McLean, and what he has to say is both shocking and improbable. Are his words just the ramblings of a psychological disturbed killer, or does his suggestion – that Anya Renfrew’s disappearance and the moorland bone-pit are linked to a sinister piece of folklore – have any substance?

joIt takes a bloody good writer to mix crime investigation with touches of the supernatural. John Connolly, with his Charlie Parker books is one such, but James Oswald (right)  makes it work equally as well. The finale of this novel is as deeply frightening as anything I have read for a long time. Despite the drama, Oswald can use a lighter touch on occasions. There is dark humour in the way McLean sometimes needs to ingratiate himself with Edinburgh’s smart set. At an art gallery opening night he listens politely as two guests discuss one of the objets d’art:

“Fascinating how she blends the surreal and the horrific in a melange of sensual brushwork, don’t you think?”
“It all seems a bit brutal to me. The darkness crushes your soul, sucks it in, and you become one with the oils.”
Definitely Tranent, by way of the Glasgow School of Art department of pseudo-intellectualism. He’s been just as much of a twat at that age of course; in his case a student trying to impress with his rather flawed knowledge of basic psychology…”

Bury Them Deep is published by Wildfire (an imprint of Headline Publishing) and will be available on 20th February.

 

For reviews of other books by James Oswald click the link

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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NO TIME TO CRY . . . Between the covers

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I’ll adapt George Bernard Shaw’s famous put-down of teachers and say, “Those who can write, do, but those who cannot, write about writing.” All book reviewers would do well to keep that little homily burning like a beacon in the night, and admire the invention, the endless re-writes and the sheer physical effort required to complete a novel. On top of that, what an amazing stroke of brilliance it is when an author of crime novels creates a character who resonates with the public and is credible enough to support a series. What an even bigger stroke of daring it is when the writer is prepared to leave that person behind. either temporarily or otherwise, and introduce a new creation to faithful readers.

NTTC coverJames Oswald’s Tony McLean has not met with a Reichenbach Falls accident, but at the end of The Gathering Dark we left him facing a tragedy in his personal life. Now, Oswald begins a new series featuring Detective Constable Constance Fairchild of the Metropolitan Police. We meet her when a delicate undercover operation goes badly, badly wrong. So wrong, in fact, that she has found her boss, DI Pete Copperthwaite slumped in a chair in the office they have been using as a front for their sting. He has been tortured, and then shot through the head.

Fairchild is perplexed and hurt when she is blamed for Copperthwaite’s death, and suspended from duty. Puzzled, and seemingly powerless to get to the bottom of who murdered Copperthwaite, she seeks diversion by trying to find a missing girl, the younger sister of an old school friend. Her sense of injustice turns to anger, though, when a clumsy attempt is made on her life, and it becomes obvious that she is being followed. Is this because of the police sting operation which went, as she puts it, “tits up” or is it connected to her search for Izzy De Villiers?

So, to echo Shakespeare, who is Constance, what is she? Lovely, fair, and wise is she? Oswald lets us form our own image to a large extent. We do know that she has short spiky hair, no romantic inclinations that we can see, and has several tattoos. The latter are a result of a rebellion against her aristocratic background, because Lady Constance Fairchild, to use her correct title, is the younger daughter of the Fairchilds of Harston Magna, a Northamptonshire village, much of which is owned by her estranged father. Con, as she prefers to be known, was educated at a select girls’ boarding school, but has gone down the rebellion route at 98 mph with headlights on full beam, and has done everything she can to metaphorically spit in the eyes of her parents – including becoming a police officer.

Admirers of James Oswald will know that he has a day (and night) job as a livestock farmer in the Scottish Highlands, and he indulges himself by taking us there as Con, attempting to throw off her pursuers, retreats to the secluded family holiday home overlooking a remote Scottish loch. One of the big questions that nag at her is the apparent reluctance of Izzy’s father, an obscenely rich hedge fund manager, to locate his missing daughter. How is Roger De Villiers connected to the murder of Pete Copperthwaite? Are Con’s bosses at the Met crooked, too, or are they simply too stupid to see the obvious?

Constance Fairchild is brave, cussed, resourceful and intelligent, and James Oswald has, I believe, struck gold for a second time. The action is relentless, and Fairchild literally has No Time To Cry as she seeks to unravel a tangle of criminality and child abuse, as well as dodging bullets. Those missing the world of Tony McLean have, in addition to a terrific new novel, a crumb of comfort as Oswald cannot resist bringing in an old friend from Edinburgh for a brief cameo appearance. No Time To Cry is published by Wildfire, came out as a Kindle earlier this year, and will be available in paperback from 1st November.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Learner & Oswald

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THE MAGICK OF MASTER LILLY by Tobsha Learner

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Rumour had it that both Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess were obsessed with astrology, despite the Nazi regime having banned the dark art in 1934. A belief that the future could be told by studying the alignment of the planets, is, however, as old as human history itself. Tobsha Learner’s latest novel is centred on a real-life seventeenth century astrologer, William Lilly, and you can read a straightforward account of his life in this article by David Plant.

Learner has the luxury of being able to use her imagination to enhance what is already a fascinating biography, as Lilly was to be involved in one of the most turbulent periods of English history – the struggle between King and Parliament, 1642-1651. Not only did the Civil War set father against son and brother against brother, it ushered in two decades where natural disasters were to take their to toll on the country, particularly in London, where first pestilence and then apocalyptic fire would come down on the hapless citizens like outriders of the Four Horsemen.

Lilly is living as far as possible from the political heartbeat of the country, since Parliament has a vengeful way with anyone who appears to be dabbling in the occult, but as King Charles is blissfully unaware of his unpopularity and his fate, the astrologer is summoned to court. What he sees in the alignment of the planets is disaster heaped upon disaster. Will he be believed, and will his vision alter the course of history? The Magick of William Lully is published by Little, Brown and came out in Kindle earlier this year. This paperback edition is due to be on the shelves on 1st November.

NO TIME TO CRY by James Oswald

JOThe Tony McLean novels have established James Oswald as one of the stars in the current British crime fiction firmament. We reviewed the most recent, The Gathering Dark, and it was powerful stuff, leaving the likeable detective to deal with a devastating episode in his personal life. The sequel, Cold As The Grave (the ninth in the series) is due out next year, but fans of the writer, who keeps himself very busy running a farm in Scotland, have the first in a new series to tide them over.

Oswald takes us south of the border (but not Down Mexico Way) and we are introduced to a new heroine, undercover cop, DC Constance Fairchild. I don’t know if they exist so much in real life, but within the pages of crime novels, they are guaranteed to provoke bitten nails and deep anxiety. How good is their cover? Do the crims suspect them? How far will they go to maintain the illusion?

Fairchild’s already nervy existence is thrown into turmoil when she finds her boss dead. Executed, to be precise. The single shot to the head is something of a giveaway. Professionals are involved, and things get no better when Fairchild is made the scapegoat for an undercover sting which has gone badly wrong. Her grief at DI Pete Copperthwaite’s death fuses with anger at her professional betrayal. The mix is a toxic hatred for those who are responsible and, even though she becomes a target herself, she will not take a backward step until the guilty are punished. No Time To Cry is published by Wildfire Books, came out in Kindle in the summer, and will be available in paperback on 1st November.

 

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PRIZE DRAW … Win the new DI Tony McLean novel by James Oswald

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OUR LATEST COMPETITION has a mouth-watering prize – a mint hardback copy of The Gathering Dark, by James Oswald. The author has found time away from his life as a farmer to write the most compelling novel yet in his series featuring DI Tony McLean. McLean has a complex personal life and is blessed – or afflicted, depending on your view – with a sixth sense which reminds us of Hamlet’s famous line:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. “

Just click the link to read the Fully Booked review of The Gathering Dark – you will find that the novel, as befits the title, is certainly the darkest and most disturbing of this excellent series.

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THE GATHERING DARK … Between the covers

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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.

billwaters_JamesO__10525-smaller-683x1024I 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.

TGDMcLean 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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THE GATHERING DARK … The postman delivers

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James Oswald has knocked on the door, and been admitted to the hall wherein are gathered the great and the good of Scottish crime fiction. His DI Tony McLean is now well established, and McLean’s Edinburgh is every bit as authentic as that of his older – and more curmudgeonly – colleague John Rebus. In The Gathering Dark, McLean tries to establish the truth after a catastrophic  event – possibly an accident, but who knows? – where a loaded truck ploughs into a crowd of people at a bus stop, with fatal consequences.

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WRITTEN IN BONES … Between the covers

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“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.

bonesAs 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.

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