RogerBW's Blog

Dead Men's Bones, James Oswald 18 September 2015

2014 supernatural mystery, fourth in Oswald's Inspector McLean series. A body is found in the North Esk, dead of a fall, and tattooed all over. A prominent politician shoots his wife and children, then himself. Tony McLean is more interested in the former, but gets the latter on his plate as well.

This series carries on strongly, though it's definitely getting away from mystery with a hint of the supernatural and into explicitly supernatural mystery; this is certainly not for the detection purist who requires strictly conventional solutions. While previous books have worked on the basis of solving possibly-supernatural crimes by thoroughly mundane police work, and there's still a fair bit of that here, McLean seems to have come to an explicit acceptance that there's more to the world than he got taught at Police College.

At least that was the irrational explanation; a rational one was still a work in progress.

An unwelcome change is that chapters have got shorter, coming in at around 1,900 words on average; this means that several flow straight into each other but with the chapter breaks disrupting the pace of the narrative. (Looking at the previous book they only averaged about 2,300 there, but it didn't jar as much.) There isn't as much time for lingering over descriptions, though there are still some good ones:

Barry's flat was up a flight of stone steps, open to the elements at the bottom and leading straight to a narrow landing. McLean had been expecting to find a wheel-less bicycle frame chained and padlocked to the railings at the top, but this part of town obviously wasn't that sophisticated. There was nothing except a couple of soggy cardboard boxes that had once contained wholesale quantities of cigarettes, a smell of stale urine and damp.

I've said before that I find it easy to get inside Oswald's head, and I did it again, spotting the villain on first appearance, though I thought the hint provided by a truly appalling pun was so broad ("Ybhvfr Fnvser"? Really?) that one could barely classify this as a mystery. Apparently McLean wouldn't agree, though. There are cover-ups, and pressure from high places – and yet it's intriguingly clear that some of that pressure is for McLean to keep digging. Even without any question about the identity of the villain, though, there's plenty of obscurity over small details and many puzzles for the reader to solve.

The ending is perhaps a little rough, on reflection, and there are some significant loose ends, but as I was reading it felt entirely satisfactory. Not for a police procedural, perhaps, but certainly for the sort of mythic story that this is starting to become. This begins even to justify the cliché-ness of the early books: the story being told through these near-stock characters is not the clichéd police story at all. Even the idiot superior is sometimes now more on McLean's side than not.

Followed by Prayer for the Dead.

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Previous in series: The Hangman's Song | Series: Inspector McLean | Next in series: Prayer for the Dead

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