RogerBW's Blog

The Book of Souls, James Oswald 28 March 2015

2012 mystery, second in Oswald's Inspector McLean series. Twelve years ago Tony McLean caught the Christmas Killer, whose last victim was McLean's fiancée. Now that man's been killed in prison, but another young woman's corpse has just turned up, killed in the same way. A copycat? Or did McLean get the wrong man?

McLean dug his hands deep into the pockets of his heavy overcoat and huddled against the cold that seeped into his bones. Low clouds scudded across the sky, blanking out what little weak afternoon sun could hope to reach this far north. Dreich was the word. It matched his mood.

This is grim and gritty police procedural, set in post-devolution Edinburgh. If it's not grimy, it's rotting. If it's not rotting, it's packed full of preservatives. While this sometimes feels rather overblown, it most definitely extends to the protagonist, who's clearly suffering from major post-traumatic stress to the point that he's pushed everyone else away and is submerging himself in deliberate overwork. That's actually very well drawn: the narration is mostly from inside McLean's head, and the reader slowly sees that the things he considers perfectly normal might not be (like working every Christmas Day "to let the people with families have the time off", but also casually calling his team in when he's had a promising idea). As is usual for a police procedural, there are multiple cases going on at once, and while McLean's obviously going to solve the main one he's allowed to be wrong when dealing with others.

Knowing that this book is a series entry was a problem for me; if it had been a stand-alone, the most plausible suspect could well have been McLean himself, having the nervous breakdown that's obviously sneaking up on him. And in some ways that might have been a more satisfying resolution than the one we got, which I found rather heavily signposted.

The writing is generally good and atmospheric, but occasionally sloppy; Oswald can't be consistent in the matter of tenses even though he probably meant to use the changes to signal flashbacks, and there are various minor editing errors. He is a little prone to cliché: there's an angsty copper fighting with his bosses, a smarmy psychologist who's a useless profiler, an ambitious higher-up insulted to his face, a gangster with a softer side, and so on. Women throw themselves at McLean, but he doesn't notice. The good stuff seems to come through in spite of all this. There's a borderline supernatural element, but not enough to compromise the basic puzzle story; one would have to be extremely purist to object to its presence here.

I think one's enjoyment of the book depends on whether one can reach an accommodation with the writing style. Perhaps fortunately, one can test this without payment; several of Oswald's short stories are available at his web site. (The books were apparently self-published, but have now been acquired by Penguin.) One short story included at the end of this book is explicitly supernatural, but it's more about atmosphere than anything else anyway.

This was a choice for the YSDC Book Club. I haven't read the first McLean book, Natural Causes, but I may well do so now. Followed by The Hangman's Song.

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