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James Oswald

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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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Oswald & Westworth

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The Postman Delivers…except that he didn’t, quite. My regular chap is resigned to regular and frequent booky parcels, and always leaves them by the servants’ entrance if he can’t make me hear, or I am somewhere away on my rambling ancestral estate. But regular chap is on holiday, so replacement chap took yesterday’s books back to the sorting office, from where I had to collect them. The little red ticket from the postie wasn’t enough to prove my identity, neither was my haughty, “Don’t you know who I used to be..?” So, I had to show them the scandalously unflattering photo on my driving licence, the one where I look like one of Bertie Wooster’s less intelligent friends. But, eventually, the books were collected, and they were well worth the effort.

back-cover007First out of its protective wrapper was the latest from one of my favourite British writers, Frank Westworth. He has created a noirish world of grimy London music venues, peopled with frequently freakish characters and misfits, all of whom live out the heartbreaking three-chord trick of the Blues in their real lives. Presiding over the mayhem is a moody and reclusive investigator, cum killer, cum doer-of-dirty-deeds for the British establishment. His name is JJ Stoner, and as well as bending his guitar strings into shivering blue notes, he has an uneasy and unique relationship with three weird sisters. Note the absence of capitals, as these ladies are not the cauldron-stirring crones of The Scottish Play, but three violent and devious sexual predators. We have met Charity and Chastity in the first two books of the trilogy, but as Westworth wraps the series up, he introduces us to Charm.

troc2What happens in the book? I can do no better than to quote a line from the best motorbike song ever written. Like the biker outlaw James in Richard Thompson’s awesome Vincent Black Lightning 1952, JJ is “running out of road …running out of breath,” Stoner is surrounded by brutal enemies on all sides, and all the old acquaintances from whom he might expect a favour or three are walking by on the other side. This is one book which will certainly not end up in a charity shop or casually passed on to friends, because mine came with a personal touch. You folks are definitely not going to lay hands on my copy, and I’m afraid you will have to wait until the end of next month for yours. In the meantime, you can check out a mischievous and beautifully written piece by Frank Westworth in our features section, and watch this space for my full review of The Redemption of Charm.

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Having punched the air (in a elderly gentleman kind of way) at receiving the new Frank Westworth, I then joyfully repeated the gesture when I found that my second parcel contained the new novel by James Oswald. Apart from having one of the more interesting ( bonesand demanding) day jobs of current authors, Oswald has achieved what might have seemed to be an impossible task. He has created a engaging and totally believable Scottish copper who, over the space of six previous novels, has sharp-elbowed his way in the room crowded with such characters as John Rebus and Logan McRea.

Oswald’s Edinburgh Detective is Tony McLean, and Written In Bones has McLean once again up to his elbows in a sinister and mysterious murder. A body is found in a tree in The Meadows, Edinburgh’s scenic parkland, and the forensics suggest the corpse has fallen from a great height.

McLean has to decide whether it was an accident, or a murder designed to send a chilling message. His work is made more complex by the fact that the dead man was a disgraced ex-cop turned criminal kingpin who has reinvented himself as a philanthropist. McLean’s investigation takes him back to Edinburgh’s haunted past, and through its underworld. He is forced to rub shoulders with some of the city’s most dangerous people and, in extreme contrast, folk who are among the most vulnerable on the capital’s streets.

Oswald’s day job? He farms on 350 acres in Fife, and when he is not delivering lambs or tending his pedigree Highland cattle, he writes best-selling crime novels such as this one, which is published by Penguin, and is out now.

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